In a 2007 file photo, Israeli troops surround a Sudanese refugee family after they crossed illegally from Egypt into Israel. Ariel Schalit/AP
Israel's parliament has approved a law which allows illegal immigrants from Africa to be detained for up to a year without trial in the latest in a series of measures aimed at reducing the numbers of African migrants in the country.
The new bill passed by 30 votes in favor to 15 against during a late-night vote in the 120-member Knesset, Israel's parliament, and was announced Tuesday. A previous law, which was overturned by the Supreme Court in September, had set a maximum detention period of three years.
Supporters of the bill in the government see the migrants as illegal job-seekers, but critics say many of the migrants are asylum-seekers fleeing hardship and persecution in their homelands.
Is this how we, as a people who have sought asylum, treat human beings?
Left-wing Meretz party
Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party praised the new legislation. Interior Minister Gideon Saar said it would "allow us to keep illegals away from our cities."
Miri Regev, another Likud Knesset member, said Israel should "send them all back to their countries."
"This law is needed in order to deter potential infiltrators. The present reality is a human ticking time bomb," Regev, who also heads the Knesset's Interior Committee, told parliament.
But others, like Zahava Galon, head of the left-wing Meretz party, said the migrants were no threat to Israel's Jewish identity.
"Is this how we, as a people who have sought asylum, treat human beings?" she asked on Israel Radio.
A recently built Israeli fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border has effectively choked off illegal African migration, but there are already an estimated 50,000 Africans living in Israel, most of them Sudanese and Eritrean nationals.
The new regulations, which opponents predicted would also be challenged in the Supreme Court, enables authorities to send migrants, now living illegally in Israeli cities, to what the government describes as "open facilities".
Under the law, their detention would be open-ended, pending resolution of their asylum requests, implementation of deportation orders or voluntary repatriation.
The first such open facility, which can hold several hundred people, is due to begin operating this week in the southern Israeli desert.
The facility, to be inaugurated on Dec. 12 and run by the Israel Prisons Services, will be open during the day but locked at night, and it will initially house up to 3,300 people, Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, reported. It said capacity could be expanded to hold up to 11,000.
Migrants detained there will be able to leave the facility during the day but must return at night, and they will not be allowed to seek employment. Women, children and families will not, at this stage, be sent to the complex.
Tuesday's legislation comes after the Israeli cabinet approved measures in November aimed at tackling the question of illegal immigrants who, according to the government, "disturb the public order." These measures included a crackdown on employers who house illegal immigrants and financial incentives for those immigrants that agree to return to their country of origin.
Israel has been trying to persuade them to leave voluntarily in return for a payout. Some 1,700 Sudanese and Eritreans have gone home this year, the Interior Ministry said.
'Racism and xenophobia'
Despite the law's passage, human rights groups worry that easing the process of deporting African migrants in Israel would put them under threat if they returned to their countries of origin.
Many Sudanese, including hundreds who escaped from conflict and humanitarian disaster in Darfur, have been in Israel for several years, living in legal limbo without formal refugee status.
Tens of thousands of Africans, many working in low-paying jobs as cleaners and dish washers, still populate poor neighborhoods of Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities.
But NGOs worry about a growing anti-African immigrant sentiment in Israel.
”The prevalent attitude toward African asylum seekers in Israel in 2012 was one of racism and xenophobia. Over the course of the year, Israeli citizens burned, beat, cursed, and looted on a scale and in a manner never seen before,” according to a 2012 report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), an Israeli human rights organization.
“Molotov cocktails were thrown at the homes of asylum seekers and at a kindergarten in the Shapira neighborhood of Tel Aviv...Three Eritrean asylum seekers were stabbed in the Shapira neighborhood and a demonstration against so-called ‘infiltrators’ in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv descended into a display of unbridled violence.”
Al Jazeera and wire services