Israel Held Foreigners in Jail for Months as COVID Blocked Deportations

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Givon Prison in 2018.
Givon Prison in 2018.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Foreign nationals who are slated for deportation have been held in jail for months after agreeing to return home, largely because the number of flights from Israel fell drastically due to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, there were dozens of cases last year and a handful this year in which people were kept in jail because no alternative was found.

The law allows the border control agency to release someone slated for deportation “if the person is cooperating and has been in detention for more than 60 consecutive days.” The High Court of Justice has also ruled that detainees should be released if there is no firm date for their deportation. But most of them are poor and can’t afford the requisite bail.

A., a Russian who stayed in Israel illegally after his tourist visa expired, entered Givon Prison in January 2020. At his first deportation hearing later that month, he said he wanted to return home, but he wasn’t immediately deported.

At another hearing a month later, the judge of the custody tribunal, Liron Krispin Boker, demanded to know why A. was still here and gave the Population, Immigration and Border Authority a week to reply. Nevertheless, he remained in jail.

On April 16, 2020, Krispin Boker ruled that if A. wasn’t deported by April 19, he should be released immediately, since he had already been in jail for almost four months. But on April 20, she agreed that he could be held for another few days, since his deportation flight was scheduled for April 23.

Passport control at Ben-Gurion International Airport, 2019.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

When that flight fell through, Krispin Boker ordered him released on bail. But since he couldn’t raise the money, he remained in jail.

In June, the judge criticized the immigration authority, demanding to know whether it had stopped trying to deport A. He was finally deported a few days later, after spending nearly six months in jail.

M., another Russian, also expressed willingness to be deported immediately after her arrest in February 2020. But her original flight was canceled, and she was finally put on a flight only in late May of that year.

Nor, of course, are Russians the only foreign nationals who got stuck here. N., a resident of Laos who also agreed to return home, similarly spent around six months in jail despite repeated criticism from the custody tribunal. Krispin Boker finally ordered him released in May 2020 because he still hadn’t been deported and there were no prospects of that happening. But he remained in jail until August because he couldn’t raise the bail money.

Cases like this are still happen, although much less frequently. For instance, P., a Vietnamese national, was arrested in February after committing a crime. But only in late June did the state finally announce that a so-called rescue flight had been arranged to take him home.

N., a Filipina who had worked here legally as a caregiver but overstayed her visa, said from the moment of her arrest in late May that she was willing to go home. However, the immigration authority said the first flight it could find was on August 12, almost three months later.

“There are problems with the flights, especially to the Philippines,” an authority official told the Central District Court in Lod when N. appealed the custody tribunal’s decision to keep her in jail.

The tribunal had concluded that N. couldn’t be trusted to show up for her flight if she were released. But Central District Court Judge Efrat Fink rejected this reasoning, saying that if it were accepted, “it would mean it’s not possible to trust anyone here illegally.” N. was therefore released immediately after the appeal, 45 days after being arrested.

“The pandemic clearly exposed Israel’s indifference to migrant freedom and rights,” Ayelet Oz, executive director of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, said. “Imprisoning people wrongly for many months is evidently nothing more than ‘a minor inconvenience’ to the [immigration] authority.”

The immigration authority said that after examining the cases cited by Haaretz, “it turns out there were delays in some of the flights, but in any case, the custody tribunal saw everyone held at Givon, and if it thought something was wrong, it ruled accordingly.”

It added that it was unable to say how many such cases there have been.

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