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Voices from Prison: “Prison Changes Children”

This is the second post in a series of posts that aim to shed light on the personal stories of migrants and refugees detained in Israel far away from the public eye.

Written by Shira Ayal, a Hotline for Refugees and Migrants activist

During my last visit in Giv’on prison in Ramle I met four mothers and five children. T, an asylum-seeker from Ethiopia, has been in detention for two years with her three-year-old son. G., an asylum-seeker from Ghana, has been in detention for seven months with her two-year-old daughter. R., also from Ghana, has been imprisoned for 18 months with her two sons, a six-year-old and a two-year old, and P., an asylum-seeker from Nigeria who has been imprisoned for over a month with her two-year-old son.

I’ve been visiting Giv’on prison for a year and a half now, usually once a week. This is the day of the week when I cross the boundaries of my familiar world, where I lead my life, and cross to a world where everything is completely different – its daily routine, its laws, the people who inhabit it. In this world live people without free choice, their entire lives managed by bureaucrats and prison guards. Their right to develop as human beings and aspire to anything is extinguished once they are detained, and their hope that they will ever regain those rights diminishes day by day. This is a small world, surrounded by fences, cement walls and steel doors. It’s hard to imagine that humans live day after day, one month after the other, years, there. It’s hard to imagine that, children are growing up in this world, and all that is known to them is what happens within the confines of this world.

The first woman I met during the visit was P, an asylum-seeker from Nigeria. She was brought to the meeting with me alone, but a few minutes later her two-year-old son arrived too, accompanied by a prison guard who reported that the boy was crying a lot. His crying stopped when his mother held him. P. filed an asylum request in Israel, but according to her “I was interviewed about the asylum claim, but I did not receive a visa in the meantime and I was arrested for not having a visa.” P. is worried about her son’s development in prison: “children needs to go to kindergarten or school. He was in kindergarten before we were arrested. He misses his friends and the life we had outside of jail. I want things to change. I want to be free so I can continue to take care of my son.”

Next, I met T., an asylum-seeker from Ethiopia who has been imprisoned for over two years with her three-year-old boy. She told me that she arrived in Israel in 2009 because she was an activist in an opposition group in Ethiopia, a country in which such activism is harshly repressed by the regime. T. was interviewed by Ministry of Interior clerks who rejected her asylum claim, as they have done with 99.85% of asylum claims examined by them. Israel’s recognition rate of refugees (0.15%) is the lowest in the Western world. T. described the Ministry of Interior’s reaction to her refugee claim: “Immigration told me that I’m a liar because there is no war in Ethiopia. I know there is peace there now, but it’s dangerous for me because I was active in that anti-government organization. Many people who were part of the organization were killed by the regime, so even if there is not war [it is] dangerous for me [to return].

Due to T.’s fear of imprisonment, torture and death in Ethiopia, T. refuses to return to her homeland, even if it means being indefinitely detained in Israel. “I’ve spent almost two years in prison”, she says, “my son entered it when he was one-years-old. He was born in Israel and didn’t even get the chance to go to a kindergarten. He grew in prison. Here, he doesn’t go to school or kindergarten”. T. described how detention is harming her son: “He cries all the time. At night, the [cell] door is closed and he wants to go out, but I cannot take him out. Even during hours when the cell doors should be open, if any of the women causes problems, everyone gets locked up in their cells.”

Next, I met G., an asylum-seeker from Ghana who’ve lived in Israel for five years. G. has been detained for eight months now. She says that the judge at the Detention Review Tribunal told her “go back to your country”. But she maintains: “If I could go back, would I choose to stay in prison? Why would I stay in prison with my daughter if I can return? We cannot return.” G. described her daily routine in prison: “I work here packing coffee and receive NIS 5 [$1.44] per day. I work from 8:30 in the morning until 5 in the evening. The children are usually with us when we work.” G. describes how daily life in prison is difficult for the children: “they are always bored. Always crying, yelling, anxious. Prison changes children. They are anxious, constantly talking and always stressed.”

She told me that her daughter, who is jailed with her, misses her old nanny. G. told me: “Once my daughter took her bag and told me ‘let’s go to her’ and then she started crying”. G.’s daughter finds it difficult to get used to detention, according to her mother “there is a boy who was with her in kindergarten and she stills talks to him, as if he’s here.” The mother said that once her daughter approached the closed cell door and cried out: “God, open the door! I want bamba [a popular Israeli snack unavailable in prison].”

R. from Ghana made her way to Israel over eight years ago, 18 months of which she spent in detention with her 6-year-old and 2-year-old sons. R. described the arrest: “we were arrested on July 18, 2012. They came to my home at 5 AM and took the kids who cried hysterically. The little one was only six-months-old. They took us directly to Saharonim prison and two months ago they moved us here [to Giv’on prison].”

R.’s older son was in kindergarten at the time of the arrest. In prison, there are no educational facilities and her son doesn’t have any friends in prison because he’s older than the other detained children. According to the mother “he always says that he wants to go to school, that he wants to learn.” The mother described to me how incarceration is impeding her son’s development: “There are no toys of games for his age here and he plays with the babies with their toys. There are no books here so he’s forgetting what he learned in kindergarten and he learns nothing. He has nothing to do 24 hours per day, not even one hour of the day when he’s busy doing something. It has been this way for a year and a half now.”

In the past year alone, over 200 minors have been detained in Israel. Detention of children before deportation or following irregular entry to Israel is the default method and not the last resort authorities employ, as is demanded by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Israel is a signatory of. Recently, a coalition of human rights organizations, including the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, submitted a detailed action plan of alternatives to child detention. The plan presents less abusive alternatives to detention for dealing with situations in which children are involved, inspired by practices of other Western countries. The proposed alternatives to detention offer a familiar and sympathetic atmosphere to the child and his family until the State decides whether to deport them, and in addition provides immigration authorities with the ability to supervise the families.