On 25 February Israeli police in Tel Aviv arrested over 240 asylum-seekers - mostly from Eritrea, Sudan and Côte d'Ivoire - just one day after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered security forces to step up measures to prevent the infiltration of foreigners and deport those staying illegally.
[Read this report in Arabic]
Nearly all of those arrested had some sort of documentation from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) showing their cases were under review. This was the first time the Israeli authorities failed to respect UN papers, UNHCR officials said.
"We ask for the immediate release of all people under UNHCR protection," Steven Wolfson, head of the UNHCR liaison office in Tel Aviv, told IRIN.
Those arrested were told by police they could wait for their interviews with the UN while in jail, according to lawyers from Israeli non-governmental groups trying to aid the asylum-seekers.
A spokeswoman for Israel's Ministry of Interior told IRIN: "We are reviewing the papers and the status of the people in custody and only those who do not have protection papers from the UN will remain incarcerated".
During the weekly cabinet meeting on 24 February, Olmert ordered the Israel Prisons Service to detain all infiltrators not classified as refugees, and instructed the Defence Ministry to tighten security at the Israeli-Egypt border.
"Hot return" policy
However, Defence Minister Ehud Barak rejected Olmert's suggestion that the military relax its “open fire” policy (the Israeli military’s rules of engagement) along the border, a move that would have made it easier to fire live ammunition at people trying to sneak into the country. Instead, he said Israel should implement the "hot return" policy, whereby asylum-seekers and others would be immediately sent back to Egypt upon capture.
Israel has used the immediate return policy only once in recent years. Last August, it sent some 46 asylum-seekers back to Egypt within days of their arrival, and without them having a chance to appeal.
Meanwhile, on the Egyptian side of the border there appear to be less stringent regulations on the use of live ammunition by the authorities, as media reports indicated that in many instances migrants crossing the border were shot at by police, in some cases resulting in death.
Surge in number of asylum-seekers
The UNHCR has estimated that 7,400 people, mostly Africans, have crossed into Israel in the past three years, with most coming in the past 10 months. Recent weeks have seen a surge in the number of people crossing the border.
Photo: Tamar Dressler/IRIN
|Asylum seekers in Ktsiyot prison in southern Israel|
The Israeli Physicians for Human Rights organisation said its free clinic in Tel Aviv saw 447 asylum-seekers in January 2008, as opposed to only 71 in the same month last year. The group said it could not attend to all the medical needs of these people.
Even for those who manage to stay in the country legally, their conditions remain rough. Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai asked the government recently for immediate assistance, saying the situation of the asylum-seekers in his city was nearing a "humanitarian crisis".
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions