As the Israeli government rapidly moves forward with a legislative amendment that would create "open detention centres" to hold thousands of African asylum seekers, human rights groups say the changes mark a new low in Israel's treatment of African migrants.
The proposed government amendment to Israel's Prevention of Infiltration Law would shorten the mandatory prison terms for asylum seekers who have illegally entered Israel from three years to one year.
But the asylum seekers would then be forcibly transferred to so-called "open detention centres" that are locked down at night. They will be held there indefinitely, without charge or trial, until they can be repatriated to their home countries.
The Israeli cabinet approved the amendment on Sunday, before passing it onto discussions in a ministerial committee. It is expected to be brought before parliament members next week, before officially becoming law.
"The government officials are saying this is a more humanitarian response," said Sara Robinson, a refugee campaigner at Amnesty International Israel. "But if you see these centres… [it's] a place that has bars, that's fenced in, in the middle of the desert. These open centres are just another version of detention centres."
The first amendment to Israel's Prevention of Infiltration Law was passed in January 2012, and allowed for the detention of African asylum seekers and their children for three years without charge or trial if they entered Israel illegally. The law itself originally dates back to 1954 as a way to stop Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes.
Under the 2012 amendment, asylum seekers coming from what Israel considers "enemy states" could be imprisoned indefinitely, and anyone that entered Israel illegally was immediately branded an "infiltrator".
The government's latest proposal comes after the Israeli High Court ruled on September 16 that holding asylum seekers in prison for three years or longer infringed on their right to liberty, and violated Israel's basic law. The High Court gave the state 90 days to examine each imprisoned asylum seeker's case, and release those that shouldn't be detained.
Since then, some 330 African asylum seekers have been released from detention, Robinson said. "The refugee convention says these people should not be criminalised. The infiltration law does exactly that," she said.
'A prison for all purposes'
A few thousand African asylum seekers have been imprisoned under the anti-infiltration law since it was passed. Most were held in a special prison for refugees called Shaharonim, in Israel's southern Negev desert.
Under the new amendment, asylum seekers who are currently imprisoned, and even those who aren't, will be transferred to the so-called "open detention" facilities for indefinite periods of detention. The primary open facility, called Sadot, will be run by the Israel Prison Service and is located near Ketziot prison, in the sparse Negev desert.
"People can be sent there without trial. Any complaint from an employer or a neighbour or a cop could get them thrown into the open centre," said Marc Grey, spokesperson for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).
"The court laid down a principle that imprisonment of people who cannot be deported… is a violation of their basic right to freedom. It also made a statement that imprisoning asylum seekers as a way of deterring [others from coming] is not an appropriate justification. Both those things are still true of the new amendment," Grey explained.
According to a report in Israeli daily Haaretz, Sadot will accommodate up to 3,300 prisoners. The asylum seekers will be banned from working outside the facility, but the state will provide them with an allowance, health services and room and board.
The asylum seekers will be locked into the facility every night, and will have to check in with Israeli authorities there three times each day. The Sadot facility is far from any Israeli population centres.
Anat Ovadia, spokesperson for the Tel Aviv-based Hotline for Migrant Workers, told Al Jazeera the new facility isn't really open, but is instead a "prison for all purposes".
"[The asylum seekers] won't be able to get out because they will have to register for roll call three times a day - morning, noon, and evening. The facilities will be established far away from any city or any place. There will be no good transportation. They won't be able to get out [and go] anywhere," Ovadia explained.
The Israeli Ministry of Interior didn't respond to repeated Al Jazeera requests for comment in time for publication.
But, in advance of presenting the amendment to the cabinet, the state wrote: "This bill thus creates a suitable balance between the right of the State of Israel to defend its borders and prevent infiltration, and its obligation to act in a humanitarian manner toward anyone within its borders and protect the human rights due to every person."
We have one country - we will show determination in ensuring its future.
Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Saar also defended the legislation.
"We have one country - we will show determination in ensuring its future. In a previous Supreme Court ruling, there is a sentence that in my opinion has never been more correct: Democracy is not a recipe for suicide and human rights are not a platform for national ruin," Saar said as he unveiled the proposal.
Israel is expected to set aside $123.5m to implement the new law. The Ministry of Defence is also involved in building the new detention facility, according to a report in Israel Hayom.
The same report states that 130 new jobs will be created, and $20.5m allocated to the Public Security Ministry, to beef up security in areas with high numbers of African refugees, "with a special emphasis on police in southern Tel Aviv".
While it signed onto the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, Israel has never formulated a clear policy to determine refugee status, and doesn't officially process refugee claims. Since its creation in 1948, Israel has recognised fewer than 200 asylum seekers as refugees.
Today, estimates put the number of African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel at just over 54,000, with the majority coming from Sudan and Eritrea. Because their refugee status is never formally assessed, most refugees in Israel hold a "conditional release" visa, which must be renewed every three months and does not allow them to work.
African asylum seekers in Israel are denied access to healthcare, employment and social services, and are often forced into low-income jobs where exploitation is widespread.
|Israelis have called for the mass expulsion of African asylum seekers from the country
In recent years, neighbourhoods in Israel with high concentrations of asylum seekers, such as South Tel Aviv, have been the site of anti-African rallies and violent attacks on asylum seekers and their businesses.
"There is no-one that can claim that he or she is safe in Israel. Everyone is now on the bridge. Everybody is afraid here. We are not secure," Haile Mengistaab, the head of the Eritrean Community Committee in Israel, told Al Jazeera.
Mengistaab escaped dictatorship in his native Eritrea before arriving to Israel in 2010. After being held in Shaharonim detention centre for 23 days, he was released in Tel Aviv. He said while many refugees are concerned about being imprisoned under Israel's changing laws, most are more focused on the challenges of daily life.
"Life is not simple in Israel. Life is not easy. I always [think] about how I can survive, how I can run my life on a day-to-day basis," Mengistaab said.
Preserving 'the Jewish state'
The Israeli government has openly declared the purpose of its policy on African asylum seekers: to deter the arrival of refugees at its borders, and deport the ones that already live in the country.
"I have the responsibility… to safeguard the Jewish and Zionist character of the country," former Interior Minister Eli Yishai said last year, after calling African migrants an "existential threat" to Israel.
In July, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted of a 99.6 percent drop in the number of asylum seekers entering Israel in the first half of 2013: only 34 migrants reached Israel's borders as opposed to 9,570 during the same period the previous year, the government said.
Netanyahu credited the fence being built along Israel's southern border with Egypt, and the anti-infiltration law - which, he said, "blocked the possibility of infiltrators reaching Israel's cities" - with the dramatic drop in numbers.
|Over 54,000 African aslyum seekers - mainly from Sudan and Eritrea - currently live in Israel
According to Orit Marom, advocacy coordinator at the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (ASSAF) in Tel Aviv, the government must improve the living conditions of the tens of thousands of asylum seekers already in Israel, rather than criminalise them.
"How [does] the government want to solve the issue of [more than] 50,000 asylum seekers living in Israel with no rights? This is the focus of the problem," Marom told Al Jazeera.
"They see those people are an enemy and not as people that were forced to come here."
Fear of imprisonment
Twenty-six-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker Dawit Demoz came to Israel in 2010. After surviving an arduous trek through the Egyptian Sinai, Demoz crossed the border into Israel, and was immediately held in Shaharonim prison for three months.
He first lived in a tent outside with 15 other refugees, and was then moved to a small prison cell where he stayed with ten other prisoners. "It was very small bed and it was very cold during the night, and hot during summer," Demoz told Al Jazeera.
He said he was initially hopeful the High Court's ruling in September would put an end to Israel's imprisonment of asylum seekers. He has several friends who are still held in Shaharonim, he said, who were equally excited to be released.
That's no longer the case.
"They thought that they would come out. Now, two months passed and nothing changed. It's not a choice. It's not humane to [have] two choices: to be in prison or to go back to Eritrea," Demoz said.
"We are very scared now to be put back in prison. A prison is a prison, no matter how the situation inside there is."