Israel’s parliament on Tuesday approved harsh new penalties on illegal migrants and Israelis who help them, building on other contentious measures designed to stanch the flood of Africans seeking sanctuary here.
The bill allows imprisonment of illegal migrants for an unlimited time without trial. People caught helping them could face prison terms of up to 15 years.
Critics deplore the new law as an unconstitutional trampling of human rights. They accuse the government of failing to formulate a coherent, humane policy on illegal migration that would address an issue that has become increasingly urgent over the years.
“I am not familiar with a Western country that allows such a law,” said Asaf Weipzen, a lawyer for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an advocacy group. Detentions in other countries are finite, and the European Union, for example, has an 18-month limit on incarceration, Weipzen said.
Africans began trickling into Israel through its porous southern border with Egypt’s Sinai desert after Egyptian security forces violently quashed a demonstration by a group of Sudanese refugees in 2005.
The number of migrants surged as word spread of safety and job opportunities in the relatively prosperous Jewish state. The government estimates 50,000 Africans—the overwhelming majority from Sudan and Eritrea—have illegally entered Israel since.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has called the swelling number of illegal migrants a “national scourge,” voted for the bill.