Israel should abandon 'prison in desert' plan for African asylum-seekers

‘Detaining refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants indefinitely in what is essentially a prison in the desert is a flagrant violation of international human rights law’ - Philip Luther
Israeli lawmakers must reject proposed legal changes which would mean that thousands of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants could be held indefinitely in a remote desert detention centre, Amnesty International said ahead of a vote in the Israeli parliament tomorrow.
Tomorrow the Internal Affairs Committee of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is set to vote on proposed amendments to the country’s Prevention of Infiltration Law. The Committee has announced that it will bring the bill before the full Knesset for its final readings in the coming days.
According to government reports, the amendments will mean that some 3,300 people could be detained indefinitely in a fenced-in facility operated by the Israel Prison Service in the Negev desert, which the government is calling an “open centre”. The draft legislation states that the way for detainees to be released from the “open” centre is by being deported to their countries of origin - mainly Eritrea and Sudan. 
The proposed amendments run counter to a 16 September ruling by Israel’s High Court of Justice which unanimously overturned January 2012 Knesset legal changes which had allowed for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants to be detained for three or more years. The court said the measure was unconstitutional and “a grave and disproportionate abuse of the right to personal freedom, which is a fundamental right of every human being, and deviates from the principles accepted in Israel and the enlightened world”. The court ordered Israel to review the cases of approximately 1,700 refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants detained in Israeli prisons, ordering that those detained unlawfully should be released within 90 days of the ruling - that is, by 15 December this year. 
Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Director Philip Luther said:
“Detaining refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants indefinitely in what is essentially a prison in the desert is a flagrant violation of international human rights law.
“The Knesset must scrap the proposed amendments and begin a complete overhaul of Israel’s asylum procedures to bring them in line with Israel’s international obligations.
“Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers may face torture and other ill-treatment or imprisonment upon their return, but that has not stopped the Israeli authorities from violating international refugee law by ‘voluntarily’ returning hundreds in the past. Deportation is not ‘voluntary’ when the only alternative is prolonged and indefinite detention.”
Detention in the desert
While the present proposed amendments would reduce the initial period of “closed” detention of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants to one year, this would be followed by indefinite detention in “open” detention at the Sadot facility, adjacent to Saharonim prison in a remote area of the Negev desert in southern Israel.  Asylum-seekers held at Sadot would be subjected to headcounts three times a day, which, together with the remote location and lack of sufficient public transportation, would effectively prevent them from leaving the vicinity. The “open” centre would also be closed at night. 
The bill gives staff at the centre the authority to demand identification as well as to search, prevent entry, apprehend and remove individuals. If an individual breaches or is accused of intending to breach a condition of the “open” centre, or is found to endanger the “security of the state” or “public safety”, he or she can be transferred to a prison for three months to a year. These stipulations are poorly defined and open to abuse. 
Israel’s Minister of Interior has stated that the objective of such a “centre” is to encourage “voluntary” repatriation to home countries, highlighting its punitive nature. Around 90% of the asylum-seekers in Israel are from Eritrea or Sudan, and would be at real risk of serious human rights violations or abuses if returned there. 
Under international law, restrictions on the right to liberty of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants must be exceptional measures, prescribed by law, necessary in the specific circumstances of the individual concerned and proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued. Amnesty believes the new proposed amendments fall far short of Israel’s international legal obligations as a state party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. 
Amnesty has long-standing concerns that Israel’s asylum system lacks transparency, does not offer asylum-seekers access to fair proceedings, and fails to ensure their protection. 
In June 2012, the Israeli government began implementing amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, which had been passed in January of that year. The original law was enacted in 1954 under Israel’s emergency legislation. The amendments allowed for the detention of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants for three years or more. Amnesty urged Israeli legislators to reject the draft law. 

View latest press releases