Thousands of African migrants have marched in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, appealing for the support of Western governments against Israel’s detention policy towards migrants who entered the country illegally.
Protesters chanted “no more prison” outside the US embassy, and also marched on to the French, Italian, British, Canadian and German embassies on Monday, to hand over letters appealing for international support.
The protests prompted a strongly worded statement from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), saying that Israel’s incarceration of migrants, caused “hardship and suffering” and was “not in line with” a 1951 world treaty on the treatment of refugees.
“Placing asylum-seekers in duress that may force them to opt to return without having examined their asylum claims could amount to a violation” of international refugee conventions, Walpurga Englbrecht, the UNHCR representative in Israel, said in a statement on Sunday.
Englbrecht criticised Israel’s official description of migrants as “infiltrators”, saying most were refugees or deserved international protection.
Israel’s newest detention facility “would appear to operate as a detention centre from where there is no release”, she said.
Israel isn't their home and we will make efforts to ensure it won't become a state of infiltrators
The protests on Monday followed a mass demonstration of Africans outside Tel Aviv city hall on Sunday.
On December 10, Israel’s parliament approved a law permitting authorities to detain migrants without valid visas indefinitely.
More than 300 migrants have been arrested since the new law went into effect, and dozens more have been summoned for detention, the UNHCR said.
Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Saar rejected the allegations, telling Israel Army Radio on Monday the vast majority of migrants had come in search of jobs, not asylum.
“But Israel isn’t their home and we will make efforts to ensure it won’t become a state of infiltrators,” he said.
Some 60,000 migrants, largely from Eritrea and Sudan, have crossed into Israel across a once-porous border with Egypt since 2006, Israeli authorities say.
An Israeli border fence has cut off the African influx from Egypt since 2012, but migrants who have already crossed can be sent to what the government describes as an open prison in Israel’s southern desert.
The new detention facility resembles a half-way house.
Detainees can leave but must report back three times a day, including at nightfall, and may be held without a time limit pending voluntary repatriation, implementation of deportation orders or resolution of their asylum requests.