New Law Jails Asylum-seekers for Longest in West

Amnesty International says no other country in the world has a detention center of the size Israel plans to build to enforce the law, which will have room for 10,000 inmates.

A new law passed by the Knesset Monday night will make Israel the developed country that detains illegal immigrants without trial for the longest period, according to data collected by Amnesty International's Israel office.

The law allows people who enter Israel illegally to be incarcerated for up to three years.

Somali refugee - Moti Milrod - October 2011
Moti Milrod

Amnesty's data also shows that no other country in the world has a detention center of the size Israel plans to build to enforce the law: It will have room for 10,000 inmates.

"When you compare the Israeli law to laws in Western countries, you can see that three years is extraordinary," said Sara Robinson, refugee rights coordinator for Amnesty International Israel. "Even when you look at the situation in countries where the law does not put a limit on detention for asylum-seekers, you can see that in fact, the average detention is shorter than in Israel."

Under current law, which will remain in force until the newly-passed law to prevent illegal entry takes effect, a person who enters Israel illegally and cannot be deported under international law may be held in detention for up to 60 days.

The Amnesty International comparison paper notes that in June 2008, all European Union countries except Britain and Ireland ratified an ordinance that limits the detention of illegal immigrants to six months, which can be extended to 18 months under special circumstances.

Even in Britain, which refused to approve the ordinance and does not define a maximum detention term for illegal immigrants, figures from 2009 and 2010 show that people who entered the country illegally were detained for no more than six months.

Incarceration is also relatively short in other countries that do not have legally mandated restrictions on detention. For example, in the United States, the average time an illegal immigrant spent behind bars in 2009 was 114 days, while in Canada, it was four months. In Australia, studies show that 62 percent of illegal immigrants are incarcerated for less than 12 months.

France, Italy and Spain, which face large numbers of illegal immigrants, detain asylum-seekers for shorter periods, limited by law to 32, 60 and 180 days, respectively.

Amnesty's figures also show that the detention center Israel is planning to build in the south will be the largest in the world. The largest such facility currently is Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas, which can house up to 3,086 detainees.

"The construction of a giant detention center in Israel, with a maximum capacity of 10,000, is exceptional in terms of size, scope and price and is disproportionate to the situation in Israel," one Amnesty official said.

Even in countries that are coping with illegal immigration on a much larger scale than what Israel faces, huge detention centers are not considered the solution. In Canada, which is now hosting over 200,000 refugees and asylum-seekers and gets between 35,000 to 120,000 illegal immigrants every year, the largest such detention center can house 272 people.

France, where the largest detention center can accommodate 270 people, operates open housing for asylum-seekers that provides food and other basic services. France has 269 such residential sites in which some 14,000 people currently live.

Detention centers in Italy, whose treatment of illegal immigrants is considered harsh, have a maximum capacity of 6,771 people combined, and the largest such facility houses 875 people. Italy also operates open residential sites, where a total of 3,146 illegal immigrants are housed.

Robinson's comparative study also found that while the Prison Service operates Israel's detention center, this is not the case in other countries. "The Prison Service is not trained to deal with immigrants and asylum seekers," she said. "Israel's decision to have the Prison Service operate the detention center places it alongside undeveloped countries with regard to the detention of immigrants."

In France, Robinson found, the open residential units are operated by various social service groups. In Italy, asylum-seekers are housed through government agencies, social service and religious groups or other nonprofit associations.