Report: 5,000 Foreign Nationals Detained in Israel Face Harsh Conditions

Overcrowding, inadequate food, and lack of translators, health care and access to legal representation plague detention, refugee NGO says; Prisons Service dismisses findings as 'tendentious.'

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African migrants being held in Israel's Saharonim detention facility.
African migrants being held in Israel's Saharonim detention facility. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Asylum seekers, foreign workers and tourists without valid visas being held in Israeli detention centers suffer from overcrowding, inadequate food and a lack of translators, health care and access to legal representation, a report by a refugee rights group charges.

The report, by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, is based mainly on interviews with 72 detainees. It covers the Saharonim and Givon prisons, the open detention facility at Holot and the Yahalom lockup, where illegal entrants facing deportation are held. Altogether, these facilities hold some 5,000 people, including asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan and foreign workers or tourists without valid visas.

The report charged that overcrowding at these facilities violates the law. At Saharonim, for instance, interviewees said there were 10 detainees per cell, double the capacity in the prison’s master plan. Moreover, each person has only 2.2 square meters of space, about half the amount required by Israel Prison Service regulations and a quarter of the norm in other Western countries.

At Holot, there were also 10 people per room, but there, the amount of space per person meets Prison Service standards. At Givon, occupancy ranged from six to 16 people per room, while at Yahalom, several families sometimes shared a single room.

Fresh air was also an issue. At Saharonim, detainees can leave their rooms between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M., but the only outdoor area they can use is an interior courtyard where they can’t even see the sun. At Givon, detainees said they were allowed to spend one to five hours a day in the courtyard, depending on the wardens’ availability. Yahalom has no common area where detainees can gather.

Some detainees at Saharonim and Givon said they didn’t receive needed medical care, and most were unaware that social workers and mental health services were available. At Holot, most of those who visited the medical clinic deemed the care inadequate.

Many detainees complained about the quantity and quality of food, especially at Holot. Many also said they lacked adequate clothing for all seasons, as well as hygiene products like soap, shampoo and toothpaste.

All the facilities had a shortage of translators. At Saharonim, for instance, only three of the 26 interviewees reported having a translator during medical checkups, and at Holot most detainees reported a similar absence of translators at the clinic.

Many detainees said they lacked legal representation at on-site hearings, since only minors and trafficking victims are entitled to state-funded lawyers. The hotline, which is the only organization allowed to enter the facilities, provides legal services to about 20 percent of detainees, but in recent years the Prison Service has limited its access, the report said.

The Prison Service termed the report a “tendentious recycling of claims that were raised and refuted in the past. The report doesn’t reflect the reality at detention facilities, and beyond that, we don’t intend to comment.”

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