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Israel's new detention law violates rights of asylum-seekers

A new Israeli law allowing for the automatic and lengthy detention of asylum-seekers flies in the face of international law, Amnesty International has said.

Yesterday the Israeli parliament passed the “Prevention of Infiltration Law”, which mandates the automatic detention of anyone, including asylum-seekers, who enters Israel without permission. It is aimed at those entering via the Egyptian border.  

The law allows for all such detainees to be held without charge or trial for three or more years. People from countries considered “hostile” to Israel, including asylum-seekers from Darfur in Sudan, could be detained indefinitely. Children's rights travelling with parents may also be subjected to the same prolonged detention.

Amnesty International Interim Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Ann Harrison said:

“Passing and implementing this law flies in the face of Israel’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and other international human rights instruments.
“Israel has the right to protect its borders, but it does not have the right to abandon its international human rights obligations to asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants, or to criminalise them as ‘infiltrators’, which only fuels xenophobia and discrimination.”

Together with many Israeli human rights NGOs, Amnesty opposed the law in its draft form. It was promoted by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and passed by a vote of 37 to 8 after an overnight debate. The Knesset’s legal advisor Eyal Yinon argued that the bill did not meet “minimum constitutional standards” and legal challenges against the law are expected.

Automatic and prolonged detention under the new law violates international standards including the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, which demand that state authorities demonstrate that any detention of asylum-seekers is “necessary and proportionate”.

In order to meet Israel’s international obligations, any detention of asylum-seekers must be for suspected offences serious enough to warrant such detention and based on detailed individual assessments. Detention should never be used as a punitive or deterrent measure, and irregular migrants and asylum-seekers should not be treated as criminals.

An earlier draft of the bill would have criminalised any assistance to those considered “infiltrators”, which would have threatened Israeli human rights organisations and humanitarian groups. The legislation passed would only apply criminal penalties to those assisting people who were armed or engaged in trafficking people or drugs. Meanwhile, the “Prevention of Infiltration Law” is part of a larger Israeli strategy to deter asylum-seekers and migrants. The government is planning new immigration detention facilities to hold thousands more people.

Ann Harrison added:

“Many Israelis have a family history which includes asylum-seekers and refugees. This law is yet another betrayal of Israel’s international human rights obligations.

“Instead, Israel should deal with asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants in keeping with its stated values and obligations. It should abandon plans to build more immigration detention facilities.”

The 1951 Refugee Convention was drawn up following World War II in the wake of mass forced displacement of Jewish and other war refugees fleeing persecution.

But historically, Israeli asylum procedures have not been fair, consistent or transparent. Since 2005, approximately 45,000 people have entered Israel via the Egyptian border to seek asylum, the majority of them Eritreans and Sudanese. For the past few years, Israel has barred Eritreans and Sudanese asylum-seekers outright from having their refugee claims heard, in blatant violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and has only granted refugee status to a handful of the thousands of applicants from other countries.

Currently, most Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers crossing from Egypt are detained for a few weeks before being released. 

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