(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

African asylum-seekers detained in "harsh conditions"

Recreation activity for Sudanese refugee children in Ktsiot prison in Israel's Negev Desert.
Tamar Dressler/IRIN

Some 1,000 African asylum-seekers, including over 200 women and children, are being detained in Ktsiyot prison in Israel's Negev desert. Some have been held for up to six months.

In late September 2007, all newly arrived African asylum-seekers were moved into tents within the prison grounds. Activists from various Israeli advocacy groups have begun to look into prison conditions: They said they were appalled by "harsh conditions" in the camp.

Attorney Yonatan Berman from the Hotline for Migrant Workers in Tel Aviv described a recent visit to the camp:

"The nights are extremely cold in the desert, yet there is no heating in the tents. The wind simply blows through them. There is no warm water to wash the children, whose ages vary from three weeks to 18 years. At least 16 are under two years old.

"The women and children are still being held separately from their husbands, despite the prison authority's claim that moving the asylum-seekers to the tent camp was intended to allow for family reunification. There are no social workers to supervise or assist the children, many of whom have undergone severe trauma," Berman said.

"We believe [the asylum-seekers] are being held in such harsh conditions to deter others from crossing the Egyptian border into Israel," said a non-governmental organisation (NGO) worker, who requested anonymity.

A Sudanese woman held at the compound recently gave birth. She was taken to the hospital and then returned with her newborn to the tent camp. Similarly, a cancer patient sleeps in the tent at night, exposed to the elements.

"We are currently trying to purchase radiators for heating and supply more blankets and warm clothes," an Israeli Prison Service (IPS) spokesperson told IRIN, adding that "it is indeed very cold" in the camp.

In June 2007 Israel resumed its policy of detaining asylum-seekers illegally crossing the porous border with Egypt. In July, the IPS opened a separate compound inside Ktsiyot prison for asylum-seekers.

Some 4,000 asylum-seekers, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, have crossed into Israel in the past two years, according to the UN and NGOs.

''They see only prison guards and fences.''

Education

A Ministry of Education spokesperson recently told reporters that two classes were opened in the compound, in order to offer the children education. According to Israeli law, every child over five who has resided in Israel for at least three months is entitled to free education.

However, Berman and attorney Oded Feller, from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, say this is not a fair description.

"One teacher arrives for 10 hours each week to teach some 100 children. She gathers together some children and they draw together, and then she leaves. This is hardly a worthwhile education," the lawyers said.

The detained children "never venture outside the prison. They see only prison guards and fences," a volunteer told IRIN.

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