Several African asylum-seekers with temporary documents issued by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have been detained by the Israeli immigration police over the past few months, prompting fear and agitation.
The temporary papers state that the person carrying them is in the process of status determination and should not be detained.
Marie from Côte d'Ivoire told IRIN: “They are arresting people in the streets, even those who have [valid] papers; we are afraid to leave our homes.”
B., a Ghanaian foreign worker, told IRIN: “This is just like it was four years ago. They [the immigration police] are hunting down asylum-seekers.”
Immigration police were established in 2002 to handle the large migrant workers' community in Israel. They were criticised by rights groups and sections of the media for their brutal methods in 2003-2005 during which nearly 50,000 illegal migrant workers were deported.
NGOs allege harsh treatment
Sigal Rosen of Moked (a hotline for foreign workers), part of the Refugee Rights Forum working closely with the community, told IRIN the detention of asylum-seekers with valid papers was not new. “It has happened before but not to this extent, and while previously asylum-seekers with temporary protection documents were released almost immediately, they are now being detained for weeks.”
“It is not our decision [to keep the asylum-seekers in prison]. We are simply following orders from the Interior Ministry; we detain these people at our facilities until a representative from the Interior Ministry hears their case,” Superintendent Orit Friedman, the Immigration Authority spokesperson, told IRIN.
According to an ARDC (African Refugee Development Centre) volunteer, some 67 asylum-seekers are being detained at Massiyahu prison near Tel Aviv, waiting for their status to be determined.
Volunteers also say the behaviour of the Immigration Authority's new Infiltrators' Screening Unit in Lod, near Tel Aviv, is very harsh. A complaint filed by the Refugee Rights Programme at Tel Aviv University describes 11-hour waits for work permits and racist remarks made against asylum-seekers.
Sabin Hadad, an Interior Ministry spokesperson, rejected the claim saying that in several instances it was ministry workers who had suffered violence at the hands of asylum-seekers and hence might not have offered the friendliest service.
Barred from Eilat
After having lived and worked for two years in hotels in the southern resort city of Eilat, Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers and refugees were shocked to discover a new Interior Ministry regulation: Their new work permits bore a stamp barring them from residing and working in Eilat.
Concerned mangers at Isrotel Hotel, one of many hotels employing hundreds of refugees and asylum-seekers, inquired about this new regulation and were told it was a standing order from the ministry.
Some 2,000 African asylum-seekers reportedly reside and work in Eilat, and the new regulation comes in the wake of a long period of clashes with, and general dissatisfaction voiced by, local residents over the influx of Africans.
Nine local NGOs - including Physicians for Human Rights, ARDC and Moked - have filed a petition against the new regulation.
Attorney Anat Ben Dor from the Refugee Rights Programme at Tel Aviv University told IRIN they had filed a petition with the Supreme Court (Bagatz) on 8 December 2008 against the new regulation. “A court date has not yet been set but the Interior Ministry agreed not to detain any asylum-seekers [in Eilat] until a court decision is taken”.
If implemented, the new regulation would render some 2,000 refugees and asylum-seekers unemployed and homeless, activists said. This includes about 120 young children and infants.
There are currently close to 14,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in Israel, according to the Refugees' Rights Forum in Israel.
Israel signed the 1951 Geneva Convention but has no refugee policy. It recognises refugees, but only 171 individuals have been recognised as refugees since 1951, although thousands of others have group protection - people from Darfur, Ivorians and others. Temporary protected status is allocated to groups rather than individuals.