Court condemns Israel policy of detaining African migrants, orders detention center closed

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JERUSALEM — A high Israeli court on Monday condemned the government's policy of detaining illegal African migrants captured in the Negev Desert, ordered that a detention facility be closed within three months and banned new detentions for a year.

The ruling by the High Court of Justice — which saw a nine-judge panel vote 7-2 to order the Holot detention center in the Negev closed within 90 days — sets the stage for a constitutional showdown between the country's executive and judicial branches.

It's the second time in a year the court ordered authorities to desist from detaining African migrants. Past government ministers have said the detentions are meant to encourage migrants to return to their home countries.

About 50,000 Africans — mostly Eritreans and Sudanese — have poured into Israel since 2006, after crossing through neighboring Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. They have caused consternation in the mainly poor Israeli neighborhoods where they have settled and where residents say the migrants engage in petty crime and help turn the areas into slums — claims that have placed great pressure on officials to act to limit the number of migrants in the country.

The Africans say they are fleeing persecution and danger, while Israel says many are looking for employment.

Israel has struggled with how to deal with the migrants. It has built a fence along its 220-kilometer (130-mile) border with Egypt, offered cash to migrants to return home, reached out to other countries to take them in and in many cases detained them.

The Holot center, built in a remote desert location, saw scuffles between the migrants and police in June, when authorities broke up a protest by hundreds of African migrants who marched out of the center to protest their treatment.

Interior Minister Gideon Saar, responsible for implementing Israel's migrant policy, slammed Monday's ruling.

"The majority of the justices have committed an error," he told Channel 10 television news. "They have taken away from us our main tool for dealing with this problem."

Saar did not say how or if the government will comply with the ruling.

Like many economically advanced countries in Europe and elsewhere facing their own migrant influxes, Israel offers poor African migrants relatively good opportunities to improve their economic standing. Many are now employed in menial jobs in the hotel and restaurant industries in Tel Aviv and the Red Sea resort city of Eilat.

Last September the court struck down the government's original migrant policy, which involved sending the migrants to what the Interior Ministry called "detention centers." Following the decision, the ministry renamed those places "residential" centers, in what appears to have been a largely semantic effort to conform to the court's edict.

Earlier this month the international watchdog organization Human Rights Watch slammed Israel for its treatment of thousands of African migrants, saying it is forcing them to leave the country at grave personal risk.

The report says Israeli authorities have coerced almost 7,000 Eritrean and Sudanese to return to their homes, where they may face serious abuse.

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