A response to Nic Schlagman on Saharonim

Guest post by amie

In this cross post by Nic Schlagman, who works with a charity for African migrants in Tel Aviv, he provides what he regards as a corrective to the letter of the soldier who described his experience tending to migrants after their ordeal across the Egyptian border. Nic admonishes: “I am sure you would like to paint as honest picture as you can”. Nic’s post fails to paint an honest picture. It is misleading about the Israeli immigration system in many respects, and relays false facts about the process at the Saharonim detention centre in particular.

Earlier this year I accompanied a group from the UK with legal expertise in asylum and immigration law and human rights, travelling to Israel to investigate the tremendous challenge faced by Israel since 2005 of the vast influx of migrants and refugees coming across the Sahara; to make comparisons with the UK system, and by request to provide advice in developing their system. We had in depth discussions with top officials in the relevant ministries, judicial system and NGOs as well as others at every level. As part of the study we visited Saharonim.

I am trying to think of a neologism to express what well-meaning folk in Israel often do: Kind of a more benign variant of the pinkwashing scenario.

They see a particular aspect of the Israeli system which has a strong element of virtue, along with some inevitable flaws. In any other democratic county it might be the subject of normal levels of examination and critical scrutiny. But when refracted through the overpowering lens of the Jewish refugee experience and the Holocaust, and the heavy legacy of obligation this casts upon us, the flaws are magnified into a national browbeating disgrace.

It was not surprising for us to find that Israel’s immigration and asylum system is more like where the UK’s was some 20 years ago. Until 2005 the phenomenon of migrants streaming in their tens of thousands across the border was unheard of. Its rapid escalation by 2007 took Israel unawares, and we found what struck us as teams of principled, aware and caring people, doing their best to catch up and establish a just system, and eager to learn. Even so, the system in place is far from the crude barbarism Nick describes.

This claim by Nic is the most staggering:

There are people who have been detained in Saharonim for years, with no access to claim asylum and no independent oversight of this closed military site.

Fact: The maximum period of detention is 60 days, the norm 2-3weeks. (There is a bill under consideration to extend this to 3 years, but it is likely to be amended in the face of strong opposition, and it would exclude unaccompanied minors, sick people and– the most important category– those likely to be recognised as asylum seekers. I hope and trust that some of the other extreme clauses relating to penalising helpers also fall away after debate)

Fact: From arrival at Saharonim processing of the migrant must begin within 24 hours and after a maximum of 96 hours, they must appear before a special detention judge who can order their release or detention. This is separate from the committee which has already begun considering the merits of their asylum claim. The guidelines of this committee make strong reference to the criteria of the Refugee Convention. The refusal of the claim is appealable to the District Court and then the Supreme Court.

In an important safeguard not present in the UK system, after two months they must be released unless they have been non-cooperative or are a security risk.

If a migrant refuses to disclose his country of origin, his case cannot be considered and of course he cannot be deported either. There are at the facility only 7 such people. We met one such who spoke to us with an air of authority and confidence, apparently at ease with his status as a veteran in the camp.

The statement from the human rights attorney whom Nic quotes– that the tribunal
“cannot be considered a court, certainly not one that rules on the freedom of asylum seekers. The best evidence of this is the fact that these tribunals are located inside a prison, far from the public eye”– must have lost something in translation. How this is “best evidence” for its disqualification is puzzling. In the UK, asylum hearings are routinely held in the place of custody, and this is not a matter for objection.

The dearth of qualified immigration lawyers is a problem, and inadequate legal aid is an issue in the UK too. Nic nitpicks that the Haaretz report is the first time the media has been allowed to visit the facility. I wonder how many countries allow the media into such places? Not every nitpick needs to be elevated into anguish, which only serves to dilute real issues of hardship and the concomitant dilemmas faced by Israel.

Nic’s presentation of the position of the Eritrean and Sudanese migrants (who do comprise 86% of these migrants) is particularly egregious, when he says “they are refused the right to enter the Refugee Status Determination procedure” ..and “this prevents them from getting access to the basic rights that refugees receive in the US or the UK”.

The status of the Eritreans and Sudanese is a legacy of pre-2009, until when, uniquely, UNHCR ran the processing of migrants and assessing their refugee status in Israel. Under international law people from these 2 countries cannot currently be deported because of conditions there, so they were granted provisional group protection status. Since Israel took over the system in 2009, Israel has not had the capacity to decide these cases on an individual basis, although this process is now beginning. Meanwhile, although they do not have work permits, we were advised repeatedly that no penalising of employment in such cases is currently being enforced.

The laws governing minimum wage would apply but they would not get Social Security or mandatory health services. Those hiring them are meant to provide medical insurance.

UNHCR is still very actively involved in monitoring the holding facility and the refugee determination process.

On the day we arrived at Saharonim, we didn’t know what to think when the sound of loud rattling against the railings greeted us. The sound rang progressively through the camp, then a young woman emerged, sharply groomed and stylishly dressed, smiling broadly. She was being voluntarily repatriated to Eritrea, and was being cheered on her way. An NGO oversees all voluntarily repatriations to check that they are genuine. If the spring in her step was anything to go by, this was genuine.

The officials we met there struck me as genuine in the dedication and sensitivity with which they carry out their duties. The medical, counselling and therapeutic facilities presented to us seemed impressive. I had a good talk with the burly Mancunian Lieutenant-Colonel, who is a senior official and also a lawyer, about breast-feeding support for traumatised women arriving pregnant at the camp.

I am sure Nic has to deal with the wretched and the neglected who sleep around the Tahana Merkazi in Tel Aviv, and kol hakavod to him. But in Jaffa, a week after Saharonim, I came across a different picture.

This was a procession of breathtakingly elegant figures all in white, a wedding party, making their way to a scenic photo spot. Do you mind if I ask where you are from, I ventured. Eritrea, replied one, giving me a serene smile.

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