Today is the second day of a three-day strike in Israel with some 30,000 African asylum seekers protesting against detention and demanding refugee status.
The furore rolled up yesterday as Israel approved an amendment in its detention policy two weeks ago, which enables the authorities to detain migrants, refugees and asylum seekers indefinitely, without giving them the opportunity to put their case before a judge. This measure contravenes the universal declaration of human rights, mainly article 10, which insists on full equality for a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal.
About a month ago, Amnesty International warned Israel's Knesset about passing of such a law as it would allow, "Detaining refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants indefinitely in what is essentially a prison in the desert". Philip Luther, Director for Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty, appealed for the withdrawal of this amendment and asked Israel to put the law in line with its international responsibility.
These immigrants have crossed into Israel through a once-permeable border with Egypt since 2006, Israeli authorities say. According to government reports, the passing of this law came to affect directly some 3,300 people who are now detained indefinitely in a fenced-in facility operated by the Israel Prison Service in the Negev Desert. The government calls this an "open centre". The draft legislation states that the way for them to be released is by being deported to their countries of origin, mainly Eritrea and Sudan.
"African infiltrators" taking care of Israel's elderly
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he views the presence of so many Africans as a "threat" to Israel's Jewish social fabric. More recently, former interior minister Eli Yishai, representing the ultra-orthodox Jews, expressed his thoughts on how immigrants are encouraged by "anti-Zionist" human rights organisations to infiltrate Israel illegally.
Internationally, these comments have caused a lot of commotion, especially from human rights groups. Walpurga Englbrecht, a UNHCR representative in Israel, criticised the government's official description of migrants as "infiltrators" in a statement on Sunday. He emphasised that most were refugees or deserved international protection and that, "Placing asylum-seekers in duress that may force them to opt to return without having examined their asylum claims, could amount to a violation of international refugee conventions."
Chants such as, "We are all refugees" and "Yes to freedom, no to prison" accompanied the protesters as they gathered at Rabin Square and outside Western embassies in Tel Aviv. It seems that Israel, by nominating refugees as a threat that is "infiltrating Israel" tries to justify a shameful disregard of several international human rights standards, both with regards to migrants workers rights, the right to seek refuge (non-refoulement), and its new amended detention policy.
Those labelled as "infiltrators" are employed primarily in the service sector and are in fact the primary caretakers of Israel's elder generations. The Israeli migrant worker NGO Worker's Hotline, Kav LaOved Caregivers, states that these 60,000 migrant workers, of which at least 80 per cent are women, are not eligible for the simplest of labour rights like overtime pay, scheduled breaks or holidays. The story of African migrant workers echoes in many other countries of the region like Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan, where dept-bondage forms the basis of both their exploitative living and working conditions and disgraced, yet necessary existence in these countries.
An international appeal to Israel
Amnesty International's MENA spokesperson Sarah Hashesh told MEMO that the organisation is opposed to the amendments made to the law in Israel. Having already warned about and demanded the retraction of the proposition to this policy a month ago, Ms Hashesh emphasised that Amnesty "calls on Israel to repeal them".
MEMO also spoke to Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) who condemns the detention of asylum seekers and migrants. "Migrants in an irregular situation are not criminals and there is no empirical evidence that detention deters irregular migration, or discourages people from seeking asylum," he said.
Emphasising that this type of policy should only be applied as a last resort, in exceptional circumstances, Colville said that it should be restricted to the shortest possible duration. "We are calling on Israel to develop adequate alternatives to the administrative detention of asylum seekers and migrants in an irregular situation."
Note: Article updated at 10.23am GMT on the 8th Jan 2013 – the number of migrant workers protesting was corrected to 30,000. The previously quoted figure of 60,000 is the total number of migrant workers in Israel
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