A new law allowing the authorities to detain, for up to three years, illegal immigrants caught in Israel, was passed by the Knesset last week. The law is part of a wider effort to stem the flow of African nationals infiltrating Israel's border with Egypt.
The law was passed by an overwhelming majority despite warnings by the Knesset's legal counsel that it was "excessive by any measure." Only the left-wing parties opposed the vote, MK Dov Hanin (Hadash) saying in the all-night session that "the law is dangerous, immoral, non-constitutional and contradicts the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom as well as Israel's international commitments."
But government spokesmen insisted that the law was necessary to deter more citizens of countries such as Sudan and Eritrea from entering Israel via Egypt.
The law includes a provision that does not allow an illegal immigrant to be deported back to his home country if there is a risk to his life or liberty.
The new law has been criticised by human-rights groups, who claim that three years is the longest period of detainment for illegal immigrants in any country in the west. Britain rarely keeps immigrants in detention centres for more than six months.
The Interior Ministry believes that about 24,000 Africans will infiltrate the southern border this year alone. The number of illegal Africans currently in Israel is estimated at around 60,000. The Saharonim detention centre, where those caught are sometimes confined for a short period, presently has capacity for only 3,000 detainees.
A new 230-kilometre fence along the Egyptian border is expected to be completed by the end of this year at a cost of £230m. Even that may not be enough. Some sections of the six-metre high fence, topped with razor-wire, have already been completed. But, according to a doctor at Eilat's Yosephtal Hospital, "that doesn't stop the refugees, they are so determined to get in. We have been treating here Africans with their hands cut to ribbons, who made it through."