Israeli Judge Accused of Racism in Ruling Against Eritrean Teen

Judge decides to release the minor suspect to public boarding school and not to uncle's custody, despite favorable social worker report.

The attorney for an Eritrean minor accused a custody court judge of racism and being unfit for the bench after he refused to release the teen to his uncle's custody, referring in his ruling to the recent arrest in Tel Aviv of an Eritrean minor for rape.

T., 16, entered Israel illegally on his own in January 2010, and has since been held in the Matan facility, a holding tank for minors in Hadera. T. recently petitioned the custody court asking to be released in the custody of his uncle, who has been in Israel for about a year and has a legal residency permit.

But in a hearing this week, custody court Judge Elad Azar ruled that after reading the survey by social workers and in light of the role allegedly played by a migrant minor in a recent rape, he would not release T. to his uncle's custody, only to a public boarding school.

Minors who infiltrate on their own are first sent to the Saharonim prison, like all infiltrators. After identification and a medical exam, they are sent to the Matan facility. Matan aims to release the minors as soon as possible to one of the boarding schools run by the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry and the Education Ministry, but a shortage of slots in these schools means minors often spend long periods in Matan.

The other option is to release the minor to the custody of a guardian who is capable of taking care of him and making sure he fulfills the conditions of his release, which include attending school regularly.

T.'s uncle was interviewed by a social worker and found to be living in a properly equipped and clean apartment, with a job that pays enough to support his nephew.

The social worker added, however, that in many instances the families back in Eritrea put pressure on relatives in Israel to obtain guardianship of minors so the teens can get out of the holding facility, find a job, and send money home. Thus, in many instances the freed minors simply ditch their guardian.

Meanwhile, the oversupply of migrant workers means few employers will hire minors. Thus, they usually end up on the street, with no income, and do not attend school as required.

Azar said the social workers' report, including the information about migrants abandoning their guardians after being released, means it didn't matter how good the uncle's situation is "because if the teen is not under his supervision and guidance he won't benefit from these conditions."

Moreover, added Azar, "We should note the recent report of the arrests of three Eritrean citizens suspected of raping an Israeli woman, and that at least one of them is a minor. It's not impossible that the suspects were, or still are, minors who came to Israel without a parent and because of a situation such as has been described here, sunk to a life of crime.

"Therefore, I am denying the detainee's request to be released to a guardian. The detainee should be referred to a Welfare Ministry dormitory," the judge ruled.

Attorney Smadar Ben Natan, who represented T., was livid.

"For a court that must determine the fate of a minor who did nothing but cross a border illegally, to base itself on suspicions against another teen from the same ethnic group is a racist attitude that shows this judge is not fit for his position."

The Justice Ministry said custody court decisions can be appealed to the district court. It added that the decision not to release the minor to a guardian "was explained in detail in the judge's ruling and was based on professional considerations and the expert opinion of the social worker, and not on a remark about the reality in Israel, which was a marginal reference in his decision."