Israeli Ministers Want Asylum Seekers to Choose: Jail or Deportation

Interior Minister Arye Dery and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan have proposed closing Holot detention facility within four months

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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Asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, January 6, 2016.
Asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, January 6, 2016.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

Two key cabinet ministers have proposed closing an open detention facility for asylum seekers within four months and giving the detainees a choice between deportation and jail.

“We should examine whether the residential facility at Holot is necessary, or whether it ought to be eliminated so that it doesn’t constitute a more comfortable alternative for a single infiltrator,” Interior Minister Arye Dery and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan wrote in a joint statement issued Thursday.

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The cabinet is to vote on the motion Sunday, after which it will be submitted to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation for consideration.

The law governing Holot’s operation is a temporary one that expires in a month. Thus any new legislation must be approved by the Knesset by December 16.

Dery and Erdan propose a new temporary law, extending by three years most provisions of the existing law regarding asylum seekers. The section governing Holot would be extended for three months only, until mid-March. At that point, unless the law was extended once again, the facility would be closed.

The Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority said that Holot’s closure would depend on the success of a government program to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. The agency is finalizing that plan and hopes to begin implementing it before the end of the year.

The border authority will formally announce within a few weeks a new policy, under which asylum seekers will have to return to their countries of origin, agree to be sent to Rwanda or be jailed indefinitely in Israel. After announcing the new policy, the agency will begin notifying individual asylum seekers who meet its criteria that they must leave.

Individuals who fall into certain categories will not be asked to leave, at least initially. This list has not been finalized, but will include women and children, victims of human trafficking and people who have applied for asylum and whose requests are still pending.

According to the Interior Ministry, around 27,000 Eritrean nationals and 8,000 Sudanese nationals live in Israel. In August, the High Court of Justice ruled that they could be deported to a third country, but those who refused to go could not be jailed for more than two months.

However, the ruling based this restriction primarily on the fact that the two countries which agreed to take the asylum seekers, Rwanda and Uganda, both said they would only take people who left voluntarily. Should any country agree to accept involuntary deportees, then anyone who refused to leave could be jailed for longer periods in order to pressure him to go, in line with standard practice for people who refuse to cooperate with legal deportation orders, the court said.

Israel’s agreement with Rwanda was amended in October to allow for involuntary deportations, opening the door to detaining asylum seekers indefinitely until they agree to leave. A senior government official said the amended agreement was signed during a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Rwandan President Paul Kagame on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, in late September.

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