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Israel Grows Ever-Harsher in Treatment of Migrants

Israel’s growing migrant population has spurred the rightwing Likud government to pursue increasingly harsh detention and deportation policies, which could further complicate the country’s relationships with its neighbors and the international community.

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Inter Press Service

A new report from the Global Detention Project (GDP) on Israel's immigration detention policies reveals the tough reality behind the feel-good story offered in the Academy Award-winning "Strangers No More", an inspirational documentary about students from migrant families who attend the Bialik-Rogozin school in Tel Aviv.

The film focuses on the exceptional work of Bailik-Rogozin's teachers in providing education for children who have escaped political instability – even genocide – in their own countries in Africa and elsewhere.

But "Strangers No More" fails to highlight the threat of detention and deportation faced by many young immigrants and asylum seekers.

The New York Times reported early this week that "there is an ominous subtext to the story that was not explored in the movie. Of the school's 828 pupils & 120 are facing deportation with their families" because they can't get legal status.

In its new report, the GDP, a research initiative based at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, details the policies pursued by Israel's rightwing Likud government aimed at restricting the ability of asylum seekers to enter Israel and apply for asylum while at the same time boosting the country's detention and deportation efforts.

In early 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to build a wall along Israel's border with Egypt, saying the country "cannot let tens of thousands of illegal workers infiltrate into Israel through the southern border and inundate our country with illegal aliens."

Several months later, in November, Netanyahu announced that the government would build a massive new detention facility to confine up to 10,000 so-called infiltrators – unauthorized non-citizens – in order to reduce the incentive for migrants.

In February, the Israeli media reported that the government intended to expand the use of a small detention facility in Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport to hold children and families as they await deportation. One activist quoted in the GDP report called the plan "a moral stain that will not be erased".

Earlier, in 2009, the country set up a special police force called the Oz Unit ("oz" means strength in Hebrew) with the goal of apprehending the estimated 280,000 undocumented foreigners in Israel by 2013. The unit has been plagued with controversy, including mistreatment of migrants.

"Many countries have adopted harsh migrant detention policies in recent years," says Michael Flynn, the GDP's lead researcher. "But the Israeli government's policies stand out."

According to Flynn, the government's reaction appears to be spurred by several factors.

"On the one hand, Israeli officials appear to be acutely sensitive to ethnic differences because of the country's preoccupation with remaining a Jewish state," he said. "Also, the country has had antagonistic relations with many of its neighbors, making it particularly obsessive when it comes to border security."

Evidence of Israel's preoccupation with its growing migrant population is its hardening asylum policies. Since signing the U.N. Refugee Convention in 1954, Israel has granted refugee status to less than 200 people, even though UNCHR has registered several thousand asylum claims in the last two years alone.

The Israeli government has recently made it even harder to apply for asylum, according to the GDP. In January, new guidelines went into effect that shifted the responsibility for assessing asylum claims from UNHCR to Israel's Interior Ministry.

According to an Israeli lawyer interviewed by the GDP, this change in policy has been "simply a disaster". People who apply for asylum at the Interior Ministry tend to have their claims summarily rejected and then they are taken into custody at the ministry, which has had a "chilling effect" on asylum.

Often, asylum seekers are not even allowed to enter the country. Many of the people who are detained by the Israeli Defense Forces at the border are forcibly returned to Egypt, sometimes disappearing altogether, according to reports cited by the GDP.

UNHCR and other groups have severely criticized this "Hot Returns" policy. In 2007, the Israeli NGO Hotline for Migrant Workers filed suit in the High Court of Justice to fight the policy. The case is still pending.

Most asylum seekers and irregular migrants – who come from a number of African and East Asian countries – traverse Egypt's Sinai Peninsula to Israel, where they are initially apprehended by the IDF, which then turns them over to the custody of the Interior Ministry for detention in one of several detention centers.

Statistics cited by the GDP indicate that as of August 2010, 1,042 unauthorized residents had been held without criminal charge for more than the recommended 60 days. Some of these detainees had been in detention for years: a Congolese and a Kenyan had been in detention since 2004; an Ethiopian since 2005; and two Guineans since 2006.

A key facility is the Saharonim Detention Centre. Located near Israel's southern border, the facility confines entire families. According to information provided by Hotline for Migrant Workers to the GDP, fathers are detained separately from mothers and children, many of whom are confined for months in cloth tents and not provided proper schooling.

As of August 2010, there were 206 women and children in Saharonim, including families from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and several other African countries.

Children have also been detained at Givon Prison located near Ramla. Their situation was so dire that it spurred one Likud party member to say during a 2009 Knesset hearing that the treatment of detained minors was "twisted and inhumane".

While the issue of the return of Palestinian refugees remains a major stumbling block to Israeli-Palestinian peace, Israel's treatment of its non-Palestinian migrant population has been largely off the media radar.

However, the growing criticism of Israeli policies promises to further complicate the country's relations with its neighbors and the international community.

"Israel has long been criticized for its treatment of Palestinians," says Flynn. "But now, awareness is growing of the plight of other migrants in the country, and with the recent tumult in Egypt, it is likely that the government's fears of 'infiltrators' is only growing."

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