Refugees Are Not Criminals

In recent months, district courts have heard 17 petitions by refugees who were held in detention for a year or more, a violation of their legal rights.

A few days after the cabinet decided to deport hundreds of children of foreign workers - children who grew up in Israel - it has emerged that the state established by Jewish refugees from countries plagued by xenophobia is treating asylum seekers cruelly.

Migrant workers from Africa at the Tel Aviv central bus station.
Nir Keidar

The investigative report by Lital Levin, published in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz over the weekend, reveals that some 2,500 asylum seekers are being held in Israeli jails, having been detained for many months and in some cases, even years. They include hundreds of refugees from Eritrea and Sudan, war-torn countries where thousands of citizens are persecuted and eligible for refugee status.

In recent months, district courts have heard 17 petitions by refugees who were held in detention for a year or more, even though the Entry into Israel Law stipulates that a person who entered the country improperly should be deported within 60 days or freed.

The detainees include a refugee from Sudan against whom a deportation order was issued more than two years ago. In every one of these cases, the judges ordered the immediate release of the detainees.

The 2001 amendment to the Entry into Israel Law requires the courts to provide judicial review of the detention orders issued by the Interior Ministry against the jailed illegal aliens whose cases are being heard. The courts are authorized to decide, on the basis of checks carried out by the Interior Ministry or the United Nations, whether the detention order should remain in force or the asylum seeker should be released. This monitoring system is meant to keep Israeli jails from becoming refugee camps for illegal immigrants and job seekers.

Not everyone who sneaks across the Israeli border is a refugee eligible for shelter and protection. A sovereign state has the right to enforce immigration laws and deport foreigners seeking work and welfare rights.

But this does not authorize the Interior Ministry and law enforcement officials to hold hundreds of people behind bars for an extended period. They must examine, without delay, the status of all the asylum seekers illegally incarcerated, and ensure that the prisons do not become a solution for the accommodation of non-criminals.