Israel's High Court recently repealed a law allowing African asylum seekers to be held for 3 years. But this victory could prove to be a pyrrhic one.
Tel Aviv, Israel - On 16 September, African asylum seekers in Israel enjoyed a victory, of sorts. Against the hopes of the government, Israel's High Court of Justice voted unanimously to invalidate an amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law that had allowed African asylum seekers to be incarcerated for three years, and in practice often longer.
However, it is unclear how this could play out. It remains to be seen how the government will respond to thousands of disenfranchised migrants being released on the streets of Tel Aviv, and how other political forces might act in a country where African refugees face a hostile response from much of the public and are demonised by politicians on the right.
Indeed, those with the interests of African migrants at heart fear that there will be a political backlash from the government in an attempt to curry favour with the right wing grassroots. This group has already been increasingly distancing itself from the Likud-led administration after the government entered peace talks with Palestinians.
How will the government respond?
The High Court's judgment can be seen as another example of how the judiciary is more liberal than much of the country, and members of the Knesset from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative Likud party have in the past repeatedly proposed and voted for bills to limit the power of the High Court of Justice and to even further remove the rights of African migrants.
Responding to the Court's decision, Likud's Coalition whip said it was "insane, breaking all records for anarchy, and will turn Israel from a Jewish state into a state belonging to its migrants". He added, "The Knesset must bring this law forward again, putting an end to the Supreme Court's activism, which is carried out without any authority".
The government is clearly displeased with the ruling and will be keenly aware that although Netanyahu's popularity in the country is relatively high, peace talks with Palestinians have driven a wedge between him and many of his core voters. In a bid not to let his grassroots support drift too far away from him, Netanyahu might use the similarly emotive issue of African asylum seekers to regain support and please factions of his own party. Some are concerned the government may respond to the release of thousands of asylum seekers by sponsoring their mass deportation.
There are reportedly 1,750 incarcerated asylum seekers and an estimated 55,000 illegal migrants in Israel, most of them Sudanese and Eritrean fleeing violence, political persecution and enforced and often open-ended military conscription.
But Israel is a difficult place to seek asylum. According to UNHCR statistics, the average rate of recognition of refugees by governments is around 39%, but in Israel the rate is well below even 1%. This is particular striking given the rate of recognition in the world for Eritrean asylum seekers is 84% and 64% for Sudanese asylum seekers.
Laws around seeking asylum, such as the Infiltration Law, also allow the State to coerce irregular migrants into 'consensual' deportation. Asylum seekers have been faced the option to remain incarcerated in Israel or 'voluntarily' return to their home countries where they faced persecution. A third option sometimes available was to be sent to a third country with which Israel exchanges refugees for arms and military aid.
Outside Israel's prison walls, African migrants also face discrimination. Many have been arrested for arbitrary offences, such as not having a receipt for a pushbike or a mobile phone. These are cases that would be thrown out of court if put before a judge, but under what is known as the Criminal Protocol, Israel is allowed to detain unauthorised African migrants indefinitely. These cases are never presented before a court of law but are processed solely by the police.
Clarification of the ruling in the last few days has meant that the Criminal Protocol too has been cancelled by the courts meaning the number of migrants released will be much larger than originally anticipated.
Fighting for the right
No information has yet been released as to what services will be provided by authorities to those released following the court ruling, and fears have been raised that as migrants are released in the next days and weeks, those who remain in Israel will head to south Tel Aviv where the African community is concentrated.
Human rights activists in Tel Aviv have raised concerns that refugees will not be allocated housing which could lead to the return of large numbers of homeless Africans to Levinsky Park.
The spread of homeless immigrants has been a contributing factor in the spread of an anti-African sentiment amongst Israelis. A pressing concern for those who work with refugees in Israel is that if adequate conditions are not provided by the state then levels of resentment are likely to rise. Anti-refugee protestors could gather in the streets of south Tel-Aviv leaving those with no shelter available at considerable risk at racist attacks.
Attacks on the African community in Tel Aviv have become increasingly commonplace over the past few years. Molotov cocktails have been thrown at the homes of refugees from Eritrea and Sudan, and one nursery for the children of African migrants was firebombed by an Israeli anti-refugee protestor last year.
Pictures of thousands of homeless Africans will no doubt inflame the right already displeased with Netanyahu's decision to meet with the Palestinians. And responding to these aspects of public sentiment, Likud ministers may feel compelled to ramp up deportations and to seek further deals in order to keep their base on side. The government will remember that their passing of laws which came into effect earlier this year preventing irregular migrants from sending money to their families back home proved popular amongst the right. Israel could also seek further agreements with third countries to deport asylum seekers to them in exchange for also sending military aid.
The court ruling could be step forwards in asylum seekers' limited rights in Israel, but a backlash from a government seeking to reassure its supporters on the right could mean that once released from prison, asylum seekers will find their troubles are still far from.