Israel's policies towards asylum-seekers:

detention and deportation instead of rights and recognition

Daniel Sotsky*


“Everyone is depressed about the renewed and now even worse detention policy. The situation is bad here—it’s been a long time and things have only gotten worse.” –Ahmed El Nour, Darfuri refugee and Amnesty activist living in Israel.


Today, about 53,000 asylum-seekers live in Israel, two-thirds from Eritrea and one-fourth from Sudan.  Approximately 1,000 of these asylum-seekers are being held in remote prison facilities in the Israeli Negev desert, near the border with Egypt.  Asylum-seekers in Israel lack access to work permits, health and welfare benefits, and a fair and transparent refugee status determination process. 


For the vast majority of the time they have been in Israel, Eritreans and Sudanese have been unable to file applications for asylum.  Instead, the Israeli government grants Eritreans and Sudanese non-deportation status—Israel recognizes that it would be in violation of international law to deport them by force to their countries of origin but at the same time fails to respect their basic human rights.


Ahmed El Nour, a Sudanese asylum-seeker, arrived in Israel five years ago full of hope.  Originally from Ombada, Sudan, Ahmed fled his native country after prolonged harassment by the Sudanese military, which recruited him to drive a tank in its ethnic conflict in Darfur.  Instead of fighting or being killed, Ahmed fled to save his life. He held onto his hope of one day continuing his studies and becoming a computer scientist.


Ahmed journeyed to Israel at the end of 2008. The night before he and the others in his group crossed the Egypt-Israel border, the Egyptian army killed three asylum-seekers attempting to cross into Israel.  “I was lucky,” Ahmed says.  Thousands of asylum-seekers who crossed into Israel spent months in Sinai torture camps, where they were held by traffickers until they could pay a ransom, often tens of thousands of US dollars.[1]


After spending 6 months in Saharonim prison, a detention facility for asylum-seekers in Israel, Ahmed was released in July 2009.  After brief stays in Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv, Ahmed settled in Eilat, working at a hotel.  “Life was good back then.  I was living on a kibbutz near the hotel where I was working, and the Israelis were very supportive of us,” Ahmed notes, with a smile creeping across his face.


Ahmed described how things began to change in 2010 and 2011, as many of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees crossed Israel’s border with Sinai, fleeing military dictatorship in Eritrea and war and mass killings in Sudan.  Incitement by Israeli government officials at the highest levels fuelled public antagonism, xenophobia and even racially-motivated attacks against asylum-seekers.  Across the board, Israeli officials and the public refer to the population as "infiltrators," fundamentally denying that many of these individuals are deserving of international protection.


On 13 January 2011, speaking about the alleged threat to Israel posed by asylum seekers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of a “wave of refugees that threatens to wash away our achievements and undermine our existence as a Jewish and democratic state.” Similar rhetoric by Prime Minister Netanyahu and other ministers in the government remains quite common.


In October 2010, Israel’s Ministry of Interior began printing the statement “this does not constitute a work permit” on asylum-seekers’ documents.  Most asylum-seekers lost their jobs and fell further into poverty. The Israeli government did not provide an alternative way for asylum-seekers to survive.


Following a legal challenge to this new policy, in January 2011, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the state would not fine Israelis who employed refugees as they would be transferred to detention centres, where they would have their basic needs met and therefore have no need for work. Despite the Court’s decision not to implement the ban on employment, the Ministry of Interior continues to write on the documents held by asylum-seekers that they do not constitute work permits. Such a policy means that most refugees work informally, which is a breeding ground for exploitation—many asylum-seekers do not receive their full salaries and are denied other labour rights.


The Israeli government continuously pressures asylum-seekers to consent to “voluntary” deportations to their home countries or to third countries, in violation of the principle of non-refoulement in international refugee law.  Particular pressure is placed upon asylum-seekers in detention, who are told that the only way to be freed from Israeli prison was to agree to deportation.  Reports from deported asylum-seekers to the refugee communities in Israel have confirmed that Sudanese and Eritreans face prolonged detention, harassment, torture and other forms of ill-treatment upon repatriation from Israel.


On 3 June 2012, Israel began implementing amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, allowing for the automatic administrative detention of anyone entering Israel without permission for three years or more.  If the individual is from a state that is an enemy of Israel, like Sudan, he or she could be detained indefinitely.  Accompanying these amendments was a criminal protocol that allowed Israeli police to arrest and detain under the Prevention of Infiltration Law any “infiltrator” who was suspected of intending to commit a crime, even if the state lacked sufficient evidence to convict them.


Fifteen months after the law was implemented, resulting in the prolonged detention of hundreds of asylum-seekers, on 16 September 2013, Israel’s High Court of Justice overturned these amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, finding them to be “unconstitutional” and in violation of Israel’s Basic Laws.  The Court ordered the state to review the cases of approximately 1,700 refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants detained in Israeli prisons. Those detained unlawfully were ordered to be released within 90 days of the ruling.


In December 2013, instead of fully complying with the Court’s decision, Israel passed new amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Law. These amendments allow for one year of administrative detention followed by indefinite detention in an “open" detention centre called Holot. Although the doors to the detention center are open during the day, detainees have to stand for a headcount three times each day and are not allowed to work.  Individuals who are late for their roll call, are found to be working outside of the facility, or are accused of even intending to breach the conditions of the “open” centre can be transferred to a prison for three months.  The Israeli government has guaranteed that health services, welfare, education and professional trainings will be available in the facility. The only way that the detainees can leave the facility is to consent to “voluntary” deportation to their home countries.


The hundreds of prisoners who were transferred to the “open” detention centre, however, refused to accept Israel’s efforts to hide them from the Israeli public and force them to accept deportation.  Soon after being transferred, approximately 150 asylum-seekers walked for two days in a “March of Freedom” from Holot facility to Jerusalem, defying the rules of the “open” centre, to protest in front of the Knesset. Chants of “Freedom!” and “No more prison!” were met by arrests and imprisonment of the demonstrators in Saharonim, the prison across the street from Holot.


The refugee community and Israeli activists responded with a March of Freedom of their own on major thoroughfares in Tel Aviv.  “Mister Prime Minister, once your families were refugees, and you were a refugee.  Were you treated the way you treat us?” Emanuel Yemane, an Eritrean asylum-seeker, asked, as 2,000 marchers watching in Levinski Park.


One of the marchers that night was Ahmed El Nour.  Beaming, he said, “This is unbelievable.  This is our chance to get the attention of the Israeli government and the world. We are refugees, not infiltrators. We should not be in detention or deported to the countries that we fled. The time has come for human rights."  The March to Freedom continues.


* Deputy Refugee Campaigner, Amnesty International- Israel

[1] Amnesty International recently published a report describing the abuse facing migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in the Sinai desert. To read the report, click here:

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