High Court approves detention of asylum seekers without charge, but only for 12 months

The High Court of Justice capitulates to the threats of Israel’s right wing and approves the prolonged detention of asylum seekers.

By Haggai Matar

African asylum seekers jailed in the Holot detention center protest behind the prison’s fence, February 17, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)
African asylum seekers jailed in the Holot detention center protest behind the prison’s fence, February 17, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Israel’s High Court of Justice approved on Tuesday the third and latest version of the Prevention of Infiltration Law, after it struck down the two previous versions passed by the Knesset. In doing so, the justices have approved the law, which would see asylum seekers who reached the country temporarily jailed for three months, while limiting imprisonment at the Holot detention center — for all asylum seekers — for a period of a year, rather than a year-and-a-half.

In her opinion, President  Justice Miriam Naor wrote that she believes the state when it claims that detention in Holot is not an attempt to “break the spirit” of the asylum seekers and cause them to leave the country. Following the announcement of the rule, Culture Minister Miri Regev said that she hopes the decision will not harm the “infiltrators’ return to their home countries.”

However, Naor found that the detention period of 1.5 years to be unreasonable. Thus the justices rejected the clause regarding the length of detention, giving the state six months to come up with a new one. Until then, detention in Holot will be limited to one year.

The decision will likely directly affect the nearly 2,000 asylum seekers currently in Holot, who will be made to remain there (aside from those who have been in the detention center for over a year, who will be released), and many others who have either received or will receive summons to Holot. As opposed to claims made by the right, the effect on the residents of south Tel Aviv — where the vast majority of asylum seekers are concentrated — will be minimal as long as the government refuses to implement a proper policy for dealing with asylum seekers. After all, Holot can only hold 3,000 people, despite the fact that there are tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Israel.

Tuesday’s ruling comes on the heels of continuous threats from Israel’s ministers, headed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, against the High Court. The ministers have openly stated that should the High Court reject the law for the third time, the government would push legislation that will limit the court’s ability to intervene in legislation. Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party has already announced that it would oppose such legislation, but with a coalition so narrow and fragile, it is difficult to say whether or not such a law has a chance of passing.

It is difficult to know for sure how much of an effect these threats had on the justices. But the fact is that after they rejected the previous iterations twice — both of which were not fundamentally different than the current one — this time the justices capitulated and let the government continue with its policies of detention.

Who is responsible for south Tel Aviv?

On Tuesday Justice Minister Shaked took to Facebook to state that should the justices reject the law, it will be akin to declaring south Tel Aviv “an official detention center for infiltrators.” Let’s remember that it wasn’t the High Court of Justice who put asylum seekers on buses from the border with Sinai and drove them to Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station — it was the government. It wasn’t the High Court that led to the extremely difficult living conditions that have plagued south Tel Aviv for years.

Opposite a pro-refugee rally, residents of south Tel Aviv protest the presence of African asylum seekers in their community, Tel Aviv, May 2, 2015. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Opposite a pro-refugee rally, residents of south Tel Aviv protest the presence of African asylum seekers in their community, Tel Aviv, May 2, 2015. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

But even in the previous version of the law, the justices recommended that the government take on a policy of spreading the asylum seeker community in different parts of the country. This policy has been deemed acceptable to many veteran residents of south Tel Aviv, as well as human rights organizations, some left-wing parties and a number of asylum seekers. In short, there is no direct link between detaining asylum seekers and the future of south Tel Aviv, which is in desperate need of an immediate solution by the government. This solution is necessary for both veteran residents as well as asylum seekers — especially in the wake of the High Court’s ruling.

What’s the difference?

The High Court rejected the previous two versions of the anti-infiltration law that were passed by the Knesset in an attempt to regulate the detention of asylum seekers. Last time, the justices ruled that detaining asylum seekers who cannot be deported for an indefinite period is unconstitutional.

In its current iteration, which was passed in December 2014, the Knesset decided to limit the jailing of newly-arrived asylum seekers to Saharonim prison for a period of three months, while detaining those who have been here longer in Holot for 20 months.

Although the state tries to present Holot as an “open detention center,” and despite the fact that the number of roll calls per day has been reduced from three to one, Holot does not allow these people to lead normal lives. The detainees there complain of poor food, of being stuck in the middle of the desert and of having no way of getting to work or studies.

The human rights organizations that petitioned the law claimed that the new version of the law does not essentially change the problems that arose with its previous versions, specifically the jailing of asylum seekers for long periods of time in order to pressure them to leave the country. Meanwhile, the state itself recognizes the fact that it cannot deport them, and is well aware of the danger that awaits them should they be returned to their home countries.

The state, however, also claims that the changes made in the current law are dramatic, as they reduce the detention period and provides more liberties to those jailed in Holot.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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