Written by: Elizabeth Tsurkov
Over the past decade, thousands of unaccompanied children entered Israel through the border with Egypt. Most of them came from Eritrea, after fleeing the endless national service in the dictatorship, which is akin to slavery, or because they knew they were about to be forcibly recruited into the service. Although the official recruitment age in Eritrea is in the 12th grade or when a person reaches the age of 18, military police carries out raids (giffas) throughout the country due to an increasing manpower shortage and arrests people who look healthy enough to perform the service, whether they are 14 or 55.
Detention of Unaccompanied Children in Israel
When the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants discovered the first unaccompanied minor asylum-seekers in detention facilities in Israel over a decade ago, Israeli authorities treated them just like they treated adult "work infiltrators". Since Israeli and international law prohibits deporting them to their country of origin, the minors, just like other asylum-seekers, were detained next to the Egyptian border for long periods of time – many months and sometimes for over a year. Pressure exerted by the hotline on decision-makers led to a new policy under which minors were detained in separate wards from adult asylum-seekers.
In 2007, following a petition filed by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants a year prior, the state committed to provide free legal representation to unaccompanied minors. Since then, all unaccompanied children receive representation from the Legal Aid Department at the Ministry of Justice. In 2010, the Legal Aid Department filed a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding that all unaccompanied minors detained in Israel be released. The petition argued that their detention contravened the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Israel signed and ratified. Two years later, the High Court rejected the petition, but thanks to it, significant improvements were made in the detention conditions of unaccompanied minors in Israel.
In August 2010, the Israeli Prison Services began operating the Matan detention facility, housing exclusively unaccompanied minors. Although the facility was not close to meeting the needs of the teens, its establishment indicated that Israeli authorities realized that unaccompanied minors are a unique population that has special needs. In 2013, Israel completed the erection of the fence along the border with Egypt and the number of new asylum-seekers entering Israel was reduced almost to zero. As a result, in August 2013, the Matan facility was shut down and all the remaining minors detained within it were released.
In December 2013, with the enactment of the fourth amendment to the Anti Infiltration Law, the Immigration Authority at the Ministry of Interior began summoning asylum-seekers to indefinite detention in the “Holot” facility. Only adults are jailed in the facility, but asylum-seekers who arrived in Israel as minors began receiving orders to report to detention in Holot. The Minister of Education at the time, Shay Piron, joined the effort of Israeli human rights NGOs, and managed to prevent the summoning to detention of unaccompanied minors who attended Israeli boarding schools. Minors who arrived with their parents or unaccompanied minors who did not study in Israeli boarding schools are jailed in Holot when they reach the age of 18. Under the current (fifth) amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, they are to be detained there for 20 months, after the High Court voided the previous amendment to the law mandating indefinite detention in Holot.
Outside of Detention
In late November 2009, the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child headed by MK Danny Danon (Likud) called on Israeli authorities to immediately release all unaccompanied children and find alternative solutions for them. Following this, in 2010, dozens of unaccompanied minors were released to boarding schools.However, due to lack of available spots in boarding schools and the lengthy medical process of identifying a person as a minor, even after 2010, unaccompanied minors spent many months in detention before being released.
Minors over the age of 16 were not sent to boarding school, and instead could be released if a guardian for them is found in the community. Guardians are usually relatives or acquaintances from the country of origin. At times, these guardians do not perform their duties properly and are in fact “straw guardians”, whom the teenagers leave soon after being released. Other guardians would like to provide for the teen under their care, but they are themselves busy trying to survive and cannot afford to provide for another person. These teens usually drop out of school and try to make a living on their own, and are especially vulnerable to exploitation. The Ministry of Welfare, in the meantime, has not set up a follow up system that would ensure oversight of the guardians.
One of the reasons unaccompanied teens are exposed to exploitation in the Israeli job market is because the Ministry of Interior makes it difficult for minors to receive visas, even the 2A5 visas – the “conditional release” visa that adult asylum-seekers carry, which allows them to work. Usually, unaccompanied minors have to request a visa from the Ministry of Interior several times before getting one. Because many lack a visa, many employers are afraid of hiring the teens, and the minors are therefore desperate to find a job and are willing to work even in exploitative conditions.
The Legal Aid Department at the Ministry of Justice assesses that 1,100 minors, a significant portion of the unaccompanied minors who have entered Israel, are survivors of the torture camps in Sinai. In these camps, Bedouin smugglers hold asylum-seekers as captives and torture them to extort exorbitant sums of money from their relatives and communities. When unaccompanied minors enter Israel and declare themselves to be minors or the Administrative Detention Tribunal judges suspect that they are minors, the detainees are entitled to representation of the Legal Aid Department. The lawyers at the Legal Aid Department help the detainees in the medical procedures to determine their age and in the process of releasing them from detention to guardians or boarding schools. As part of this work, the lawyers at the Legal Aid Department would hear from the minors about what they went through in Sinai. Because the children were transferred to boarding schools, the state did not examine whether they meet the criteria of slavery and human trafficking victims, a status that entitles them to stay in a shelter and receive medical and psychological help for a year. Israeli boarding schools have provided a home and education to the teens, but they are not supposed to nor equipped to deal with the consequences of torture that the teens underwent and to provide them with psychological assistance.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Projects Director at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants