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A New Report Reveals the Story of Dozens of Migrants Locked Behind Bars in Israel for Years

The Entry to Israel Law allows the detention of any person who does not have status in Israel, provided that the detention is not for a punitive purpose, but serves as a tool intended to enable deportation. The law also establishes that in order to prevent the detention from becoming a punitive tool, a person who has been held in custody for more than 60 consecutive days and can’t be deported should be released upon the deposit of bail. Despite that, a new report by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants exposes the stories of dozens of migrants held in the Givon and Saharonim prison facilities for many years, without being deported.

Of the 33 people without status whose circumstances of detention are described in this report, 25 have been or were detained for over three years, 18 of them for over four years, 10 of them for over five years, and five for over six years.

In most cases the detention is extended for reasons that are beyond the migrants’ control such as: lack of valid travel documents, lack of state recognition of their legal status which prevents them obtaining travel documents, lack of representation of the country of origin in Israel and communication difficulties or mental problems that prevent collaboration with the deportation process. Some of the detainees are asylum seekers whom their request for asylum was rejected but they still fear returning to their home country. These people are left in custody for an unlimited period of time.

The report describes the different reasons for extensive arrest periods:

• Detention of persons without status whose citizenship is disputed due to a lack of identifying documents, lengthy periods of refugeehood that have broken the person’s affinity to their country of origin, or the refusal of the country of origin to recognize them as citizens. In such cases, it is unclear to what country – if any – those involved may be removed. This group includes a large number of Eritreans who have been determined by the Immigration Authority to be Ethiopians, as well as persons without status who fled the civil wars in the Ivory Coast but are not recognized as citizens of that country due to its citizenship laws. “Soon after I arrived in Israel, an Ethiopian woman from the Interior Ministry interviewed me. She was against me from the start. She kept telling me that I was Ethiopian and was lying when I claimed otherwise. She said that I would never leave Saharonim unless I admitted that I was Ethiopian.” (From an interview with an Eritrean citizen released from Saharonim Prison after two years and 11 months)

• Detention of persons without status from countries with which Israel does not maintain diplomatic relations: Detainees who wish to return countries including Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Togo, Liberia, Mali, Niger, or Chad, but who do not hold a passport or other documents from their country of origin permitting their removal. In many cases, the individuals involved refuse to return using an Israeli travel document after learning that others removed in this manner have been detained for long periods. For example, the report presents the story of a citizen of Senegal who after four years of detention agreed to return to his home country. Upon his arrival he was imprisoned by the authorities and eventually was sent back to Israel, where he was imprisoned once again.

• Asylum seekers who are not protected from deportation and are in fear of being returned to their country of origin: these detainees have requested asylum in Israel but their claim was rejected out of hand. Lacking the financial means for challenging the rejection in a legal procedure, they are held in custody for an unlimited period of time justified by their lack of collaboration with the deportation process.

• Persons without status coping with psychological difficulties: these detainees sometimes refrain from giving details that might assist in their deportation from Israel or refuse to leave the country without any reasonable explanation. Some of them do not understand the proceedings pursued in their case and there is no proactive proceeding to examine their legal capacity. In addition there is a valid concern that these people might not understand the consequences of their departure from Israel. In the case of a citizen of Ivory Coast described in this report, attempts were made to deport him to Guinea even though there were signs that his mental situation does not allow him to make rational decisions on the matter. Despite that, the Hotline team found out that he was deported to an unknown destination.

The report also clarifies that even when some of the migrants are released from prison, after many years and under limited conditions, they are not allowed to work and support themselves- and are destined to be imprisoned once again when they fail to arrange their departure from Israel. The Detention Review Tribunal which is responsible for judicial review inside the prisons, releases some status-less people after years of detention and after Immigration Authorities fail to remove them, despite full cooperation on their part. After their release they receive a visa that restricts them from working. This provision prevents them from making a living until they manage to arrange their departure from Israel. The migrants are released, in most cases, for a short period of time which varies from one to four months, under restricted conditions, among them, that bail is deposited. After a prolonged detention period, most of them can’t afford the required bail deposit.

At the end of the period of release, if they have not managed to leave Israel by themselves and if the Tribunal declines to grant an extension, the persons without status are returned to prison for an additional period of unknown and unpredictable length. Two-thirds of detainees whose circumstances are detailed in this report and in the appendix were held in the past for prolonged periods. This information is not specified in the documents of the Israel Prison Service or in the transcript of the Tribunal hearings, which merely quote the most recent date of detention. Some of these detainees have been detained four or five times without being able to leave Israel.

In light of these severe findings we call for an immediate application of the following recommendations:

• Legal representation funded by the state to be be provided for long term detainees.
• In addition to Detention Review Tribunal, an additional judicial review should be put in place for long term detainees.
• The practice of conditional release on the deposit of bail should be stopped.
• A work permit should be provided to those released until their departure is achieved.
• A hearing should be held before previously released status-less people are taken back to detention.
• The Israeli authorities should stop pressuring citizens of countries with which Israel does not maintain diplomatic relations to return to their country of origin, or to another country, with an Israeli travel document, until the safety of those leaving with such a document can be guaranteed. Authorities should contact the country’s representatives for the purpose of identifying their citizens and providing them with travel documents while they are still in Israel.

Read the full report