African asylum-seekers protest outside Israel’s Holot detention center in the Negev, February 2014 / Getty Images
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Harel Locker, has asked the state’s mismanagement watchdog to bury an upcoming report on the treatment of African migrants and asylum seekers, on grounds that publication would harm Israel’s international relations and national security.
The report on migrants is due out in May as part of the annual State Comptroller’s Report, which reviews the performance of government agencies. The report is expected to charge that the government has no consistent policy for dealing with the tens of thousands of African migrants and asylum seekers who have entered the country since 2007 by illegally crossing the border from Sinai. By a combination of inaction and direct intention, the report is said to claim, the government has subjected the migrants to an inhumane and arguably illegal regime of harassment and dehumanization.
About 50,000 people entered before the influx was effectively cut off last year by the construction of a border barrier similar to the security barrier cutting off the West Bank. Most are from Sudan and Eritrea, where many claim they were subject to government persecution. Israel’s interior ministry has taken the position that nearly all the migrants are simply looking for work, not fleeing persecution.
The government has granted group protection to the migrants from those countries, shielding them from deportation to their home countries where they might face persecution or death. But nearly all have been prevented from applying for refugee status, which would afford them rights to employment, housing, education and social services as well as access to identity and travel documents under the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees to which Israel is a signatory. As a result, most have gravitated to impoverished south Tel Aviv, where they subsist in a sort of legal limbo. The emergence of the massive migrant population has prompted fierce protests from residents of south Tel Aviv and led to repeated social tensions.
The comptroller’s report is said to accuse the government, particularly the prime minister’s office, of failing to coordinate the numerous ministries and agencies involved in the migrants’ treatment, allowing agencies to shift responsibility from one to the next and avoid formulating any long-term policy. Although the influx has largely ended and several thousand have been induced to relocate to third countries at Israel’s expense, the vast majority are expected to remain in Israel indefinitely if not permanently.
Most controversially, the report is believed to charge that Israel’s handling of the migrants puts it in violation of the U.N. refugee convention, which was drafted, largely at Israel’s initiative, in response to the international abandonment of Jewish refugees during World War II.
The Knesset in 2012 passed legislation on the migrants as an amendment to the 1954 infiltration law, which was originally intended to address cross-border terrorism. The amendment permitted the imprisonment of migrants for up to three years without charges, as a way to deter future migrants. The amendment came at the initiative of then-interior minister Eli Yishai, the chairman of the Shas party, and was widely criticized at the time as racist and anti-democratic.
Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the amendment in September 2013 as violating the migrants’ human rights and Israel’s obligations under the refugee convention. In response the Knesset quickly passed a new amendment in December 2013, cutting the prison term to one year, followed by indefinite detention in a special “open facility” at Holot in the Negev, operated by the Israel Prison Service. Migrants interned there are theoretically free to come and go, but must show up for muster three times a day.
The U.N.’s main international refugee agency, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, issued a statement in January 2014 alleging that the Knesset’s new rules might violate international law, raising the fears that Israel could be brought before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
It’s that fear of international charges that appears to have prompted the request from the prime minister’s office for the report to be kept under wraps. Gag orders on state comptroller’s reports are extremely rare and are usually employed only in cases of clear national security risk.
The State Comptroller, Yosef Shapira, reportedly turned down the prime minister’s request and suggested he ask the Knesset’s state control and review committee for a gag order if he wished. As News 1’s Itamar Levin points out, the control and review committee is chaired by an opposition lawmaker, Amnon Cohen of Shas, who will have little desire to help the government out of a jam.
Moreover, Cohen is a close ally of current Shas chairman Arye Deri, who is a longtime ally of the left-leaning Labor Party and a bitter foe of former Shas leader Yishai, a hardline conservative and author of the original anti-migrant legislation.
Sources in the prime minister’s office claim that the report’s harshest language, accusing the government of violating international law, was amended following negotiations between comptroller Shapira and attorney general Yehuda Weinstein. But Shapira’s office has denied any changes were made.