Israeli authorities are effectively detaining hundreds of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers despite an Israeli High Court order for their release, Human Rights Watch said.
More than 150 of the migrants ignored the rules restricting their mobility and walked out of what they called an "open prison" in the Negev desert to march toward Jerusalem in protest. On December 17, 2013, they gathered outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, where police apprehended them.
Israeli officials established the Holot Center for Residents in the Negev to house hundreds of Eritrean and Sudanese nationals - mostly asylum seekers - after the High Court ruled in September that detaining them in the nearby Saharonim Detention Center was unlawful.
Yet the requirement for the migrants to live at Holot, register there three times a day, and remain inside at night, also amounts in practice to detention, Human Rights Watch said.
"The Israeli authorities seem hell-bent on finding new ways to detain these people," said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"Officials should drop this charade of pretending that these extensive restrictions are not detention, and genuinely release the asylum seekers, in line with the High Court ruling."
Under international law and United Nations guidelines, Israel should detain asylum seekers only as a last resort, on an individual basis, not as a group, and as a strictly necessary and proportionate measure to achieve a legitimate aim such as security.
On December 12, officials transferred 480 of just over 1,000 African migrants detained in Saharonim to Holot. Israel's Defense Ministry built Holot, and the Israeli Prison Service guards asylum seekers and others detained there.
A four-meter-high fence and the Negev desert surround the center. The authoriies have said they may make limited bus service available to take the migrants to the nearest town, Beer Sheva, 65 kilometres away.
Beginning in June 2012, officials started to detain about 2,000 Africans, mostly Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, in Saharonim Detention Center.
Many had been severely abused by traffickers in Egypt on their way to Israel, and most have since claimed asylum based on fear of persecution in their home countries.
A new Israeli law in mid-2012 allowed the authorities to detain "infiltrators" for up to three years without any possibility for them to challenge their detention.
Israel defines an "infiltrator" as anyone entering Israel irregularly - not through an official border post - including asylum seekers.
The Israeli High Court in September 2013 struck down the 2012 law, ruling that lengthy detention of foreign nationals who could not be deported to their home countries breached their right to liberty under Israel's Basic Law.
The court gave the authorities until December 15, 2013, to release anyone who could not be lawfully deported.
Officials did not immediately act and Israeli refugee groups sought a contempt of court order in October. The authorities then released just over 700 detainees.
Legislators rushed through a new law, approved by Parliament on December 10, allowing officials to detain any newly arriving "infiltrators" for up to a year and then to transfer them - as well as "infiltrators" detained since 2012 - to "centers for residents."
If an asylum seeker breaches - or is even suspected of planning to breach - the center's rules, or threatens the "security of the state" or "public safety," the new law authorizes an Interior Ministry official to order the person's return to the Saharonim Detention Center for up to 12 months.
Miri Regev, the chairwoman of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, told Israeli reporters on December 15 that the group walking toward Jerusalem were "infiltrators" who were "breaking the new law" by leaving the Holot center for days and missing the mandatory registration three times each day.
"I hope that when they reach Jerusalem, the police will be waiting for them and take them directly to a closed facility," she said, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz.
The December 10 law says that if a person living in a center for residents fails to report, as required, the authorities may transfer the person to a detention center after 48 hours.
"If you are forced to live in the middle of the desert, your every move watched by armed guards, able only to visit a town an hour away and then return almost immediately to meet reporting deadlines, then you are not a free person, you are detained," Simpson said.
The UN Human Rights Committee has suggested that detention occurs whenever someone is confined to a "specific, circumscribed location."
In March, Human Rights Watch reported on Israeli detention practices aiming to coerce Eritrean and Sudanese detainees into agreeing to return to Eritrea and Sudan.
On February 25, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) criticized Israel for pressuring detained Eritreans to agree to "return to Eritrea under a jail ultimatum" which it said "cannot be considered voluntary by any criterion."
According to the Israeli authorities, another 50,000 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals who entered the country irregularly since 2006 live in Israel's cities.
Israel has informally suspended their deportation, but senior officials have repeatedly threatened to deport them. In early March, the Israeli media reported that the interior minister said he planned to detain all such "infiltrators" and to deport them to a still to be identified third country.
Sudanese and Eritreans face a real risk of harm if they return to their home countries. Under Sudanese law, anyone who has visited Israel faces up to 10 years in prison, and Sudanese officials have said the courts will apply the law. Because of credible persecution fears relating to punishment for evading indefinite military service in Eritrea, 90 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers worldwide are granted some form of protection.
For years, Israel has refused to process Eritrean and Sudanese asylum claims. In February, the authorities began registering claims but have yet to reach a decision in most cases.
"Instead of defying its own High Court and international obligations, Israel should release asylum seekers while officials examine their claims and protect anyone found to face a risk of serious harm if returned," Simpson said.