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Team of Experts to Israeli Government: End Detention of Migrant Children

The End Child Detention Coalition (EDC) – comprised of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI)’s ‘Israeli Children’ project, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel and the UNHCR, formulated an action plan in the past few months, recommending alternatives for child detention in Israel. The plan was presented for the first time yesterday, February 10th, in a special Knesset hearing regarding alternatives to child detention. The hearing was in joint conference of the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on Foreign workers.

There are approximately 5,000 minors without permanent legal status in Israel, while in the past year, more than 200 of them had been imprisoned in Israel due to a lack of residency status. Among them, there are children of migrant workers, children of asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors. A study conducted by the ECD Coalition found that 83% of the respondents – children detained in Israel over the age of 12 and their parents – indicated symptoms of high to severe levels of post trauma as a result of the detention. In spite of those disturbing finding, child detention has become the state’s default solution for children without legal status in Israel, despite the fact that the International Convention on the Rights of the Child states that child detention must be a last recourse only, applied after exhausting all other, less harmful, options.

The plan was developed with the assistance of experts, including retired judge and the former chairperson of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, Saviona Rotlevy, the former deputy to the General Attorney, Attorney Judith Karp, and Prof. Nimrod Aloni, Director of the Institute for Advanced Education at Kibbutzim College. One of the main recommendations in the Action Plan offers to change the way the state deals with families that are at risk of being detained; instead of a interacting with policeman or immigration inspectors, a social worker will serves as an intermediary agent between the families and the authorities. In addition, a ‘case manager’ with professional welfare training will accompany the family and help the child to cope with the extreme change in his or her life. Studies indicate that the chances of migrants cooperating with procedures pertaining to their status, or adhering to authorities’ instructions to depart the country, are exceptionally higher if a case manager is involved.

In cases requiring supervision to ensure the departure of families that already live in the country and are integrated into society, the Action Plan offers community-based support models, which are often an inexpensive and effective alternative to detention. A thorough screening and assessment process can establish whether support or conditions may be required to assist and ensure that children and families remain engaged with authorities whilst residing in the community. Another option is a family facility with support from a case manager; an open facility, run by welfare services, is an alternative to detention that ensures closer supervision. The right of internal movement is not restricted and there are viable and realistic options to temporarily leave the facilities during the day. Such facilities ensure that migrants, and particularly their children, do not experience a loss of freedom or detachment from the outside environment. As for unaccompanied children, the program offers to expand the use of youth villages, such as those run by the Ministry of Education’s Administration for Agricultural Education, which successfully integrated unaccompanied minors who arrived in Israel in the past eight years. At present, minors are held in detention centers, and only after long periods they are released to the said youth villages. By adopting a strengthened screening and assessment process to identify unaccompanied minors and their suitability for placement in such villages, Israel can expand the use of alternatives, and eliminate the detention period before children are directed to a youth villages.

The Knesset committees scheduled a second meeting on alternatives to child detention to continue the discussion. Updates will follow.

Testimonies –

In a visit held by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants last week, Mothers who are currently imprisoned in Givon prison with their children told about their difficulties: “We have been in prison a year and a half. We were arrested on July 2012”, told R. from Ghana, who is in prison with her two sons, age six and two. “They came into my house at 5 AM and took me and my children and they didn’t stop crying. The little one was only six months old. The older one had been in an Israeli kindergarten and had to leave it because of the arrest. He misses it; he always says that he wants to go to school, that he misses his friends. There are no toys or games here for his age, he plays with the toddlers and he forgets everything he learned in kindergarten. 24 hours a day he has nothing to do here, and it’s been like that a year and a half”.

P. from Ghana has been in prison with her two year old girl for seven months:”My child misses her old babysitter. Once she took her bag and told me:”let’s go to her”, and then she burst into tears. She also misses her kindergarten and still talks to one of the boys who were there with her like he’s here. Once she came to the door and said “God! Open the door!” the prison changes the children. They cry all the time, they are nervous and stressed out”.