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Anti-infiltration law keeps Israel's asylum seekers in detention Open in fullscreen

Zak Brophy

Anti-infiltration law keeps Israel's asylum seekers in detention

Refugees protest against their detention at Holot in February [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 December, 2014

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The Knesset's approval of an amended anti-infiltration bill ensures the country's highest court will be ignored, and the Horot detention facility for asylum seekers in the desert will remain in service.
Deep in the Negev desert Muatassim Ali lives with around 2,200 other asylum seekers.

His struggle for a semblance of security and dignity was dealt a significant blow Monday when the Israeli Knesset voted in favour of an amendment to the existing "anti-infiltration law".

Israel's High Court of Justice recently ruled that the Holot detention center where Muatassim lives is illegal and will have to close by 22 Decembe. 

The politicians' vote of 43 in favour, 23 against and 3 abstaining on the ammended bill ensures the court's ruling will be ignored, and Muatassim will continue to deliberate 
his precarious future in the heart of the desert.

"I thought with the history of the Jewish people Israel would be the first place to understand why people would be fleeing genocide and persecution," he told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

A toxic discourse

Muatassim is from the Darfur region of Sudan and in 2009 he had to flee the unfolding massacres and targeted killings. He was arrested several times for his political views and received numerous death threats.
     Over recent years there has been a barrage of propaganda vilifying these people.

A sharp shift to the right in Israeli politics has given rise to an increasingly vocal push to isolate African asylum seekers and ultimately return them to their homelands, which in the majority of cases are Darfur and Eritrea. Both of which are riddled by instability, long running conflicts and political oppression.

Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu warned in 2012 that "illegal infiltrators flooding the country" could threaten "our existence as a Jewish and democratic state".

Proponents of anti-assimilation have become more virulent in their attacks against African migrants and their political representatives have been emboldened by the hardline coalition forged by Netanyahu.

"Over recent years there has been a barrage of propaganda vilifying these people. It is beneficial for many politicians to have a punch bag and that isn't just the Palestinians anymore," explained independent documentary maker David Sheen

Nationalist anti-immigration protests have turned violent in recent years with the random beatings of Africans and the ransacking of their properties or shops.

Demonstrators have chanted slogans such as: "Stop talking, start expelling" and "Blacks out!", while other protesters have derided the "bleeding-heart leftists" working to help them.

sim was shocked by the racism he encountered when he first arrived and says it is getting worse. "There is so much racism. It is blatant and systemic. You have politicians openly saying that Sudanese people are a cancer in society. I mean, how do you respond to that?"

Upon his arrival in Israel Muatassim was held in detention for seven months while his claim was processed. When he was released he did not know where to go, so along with thousands of other refugees he ended up trying to forge a new life in the impoverished southern suburbs of Tel Aviv.

Already suffering from poverty and neglect the arrival of large refugee communities soon exacerbated ethnic tensions. As the environment became increasingly toxic for the refugee communities laws were introduced that would see Muatassim once again back in a holding centre.

In June 2012, new legislation was enacted that meant asylum seekers could be held for up to three years without trial in the desert prison of Saharonim. Little more than a year later the Isaeli High Court of Justice ruled against the law, and said around 2,000 detainees had to be released.

Within months the Knesset had amended the legislation in an effort to circumvent the ruling. While decreasing the permitted time for detention without trial at Saharonim the Holot 'open reception centre' was also conceived.

Detained residents

Refugees sent to Holot were labelled 'residents' rather than detainees and the period for 'residency' was indefinite. With roll calls three times a day, a ban on guests and prohibitively long and arduous journeys through the desert to any towns or cities, there was in practice scant differentiation between 'residency' and 'detention'.
     Any strategy is justified as long as it is seen to protect the Jewish demographic majority.

"It is completely pointless to say this is not detention. We are just holed up here with no end in sight," said Muatassim. "The role of the government is to make our lives as unbearable as possible in the hope that we will choose to go home," he added.

Setting a precedent in Israeli history, the Israeli High Court of Justice quashed the law for a second time in September and ordered the closure of Holot. This most recent amendment once again side steps the authority of the country's highest court.

During the debate in the Knesset, leading anti-immigration politicians such as Mira Regev and Ayelet Shaked vowed to pass a tougher law after the elections, and to undermine the basic laws around human rights and personal freedom that had been used to challenge previous versions of the bill.

"This is being pushed through in the 11th hour because the three month limit to close Holot expires soon, and the government wants to make sure that doesn't happen once the Knesset is dissolved. This will buy more time to keep the centre running,” reasoned David Sheen.   

The new bill stipulates that migrants can be held for up to 20 months in Holot, and that they must show up for a head count once a day as opposed to three times. It also outlines new, stiffer penalties for people employing illegal migrants. Migrants must also pay a monthly deposit which is only returned after they leave the country.

Interior Minister Gilad Erdan said the debate around the bill was between two political blocks: "Those who see Israel, first and foremost as the one and only nation state of the Jews, and the Left bloc, who, unfortunately, are willing to endanger this."

The community of black African asylum seekers amount to around 0.7 percent of the population, and the detractors to the anti-infiltration laws argue they could easily be accommodated in society. Dispersing the refugee communities out of overcrowded ghettoes, and investing in neglected areas such as South Tel Aviv they argue would ameliorate tensions between the different communities.

Divided society

Erdan's statements on the law reflect divisions within Israeli society around the Jewish nation state bill that would see national rights being reserved for Jews only.

Although Netanyahu vigorously promoted the law and his cabinet ultimately passed it, the Knesset did not vote on it before the ruling alliance fell apart leading to the the early dissolution of parliament.

"Any strategy is justified as long as it is seen to protect the Jewish demographic majority," explained documentary maker Sheen. "There is some straight up Jewish supremacy among the proponents of this law but it also has support among lots of groups that would like to consider themselves progressive or liberal," he added.

A poll taken just under a year ago found that 80 percent of Israeli Jews want to see African migrants rounded up and moved out of urban centers.

For Muatassim a return to Sudan is inconceivable. He knows he would be targeted and his return would put his family at risk.

Reflecting on the political tussle in which he is ensnared in Israel he reflected, "
I don't know what I am going to do. It is impossible for me to go home and there is no quick solution here in Israel. I have a long struggle ahead." 

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