Cablegate: Ketziot Prison Becomes Home to African

DE RUEHTV #3525/01 3481417
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E.O. 12958: N/A

1. Summary. Ketziot Prison, in the Negev desert near the
Israel-Egypt border, is now home to roughly 1,080 African
asylum-seekers. Warden Brigadier General Shlomo Cohen told
RefCoord and EmbOffs during a December 5 visit that as many
as 250 asylum-seekers enter Israel each week, but that
Ketziot is now filled to capacity. New arrivals come with
few possessions and are often in need of medical attention,
he said. The Prison Authority provides them with temporary
shelter, food, medical care, and recreational opportunities.
UNHCR reported December 12 that it receives 30 - 40 new
African asylum-seekers every day at their offices, but lacks
the capacity to conduct refugee status determinations for the
majority of the current caseload. End Summary.

No Vacancies at Ketziot

2. On December 5, RefCoord and EmbOffs visited Ketziot
Prison, located just 5 kilometers from the Israel-Egypt
border crossing at Nitzana, to observe the living conditions
of 1,080 African asylum-seekers. According to General Cohen,
the prison is also home to Israel's largest concentration of
Palestinian security prisoners and is constantly under threat
of attack by terrorists seeking to free inmates. Cohen
reported that Ketziot began accepting African asylum-seekers
in May/June, at which time a separate bloc inside the prison
compound was constructed. With the bloc now filled to
capacity and more asylum-seekers arriving in Israel at a rate
of 250 per week, Cohen said he has given orders not to accept
more. However, he later admitted that he may soon build
another section inside the prison compound in order to
accommodate new arrivals. Cohen noted that UNHCR typically
visits the prison once per week to register new arrivals. He
indicated that, in the past three months, the prison has
released 400 Africans after UNHCR identified them as

Africans Arrive In Poor Condition

3. According to Cohen, the African asylum-seekers pay between
USD 500 - 700 to be smuggled into Israel from Egypt. When an
IDF border patrol encounters the Africans, he said, they are
taken to the nearest IDF facility. An IDF general officer
must sign a warrant to assign them to Ketziot. Most of the
asylum-seekers arrive only with "the clothes on their back,"
he added. The Interior Ministry has provided the Prison
Authority with a "blank check" to provide clothing, food,
toys, and medical care to this population. Many arrive with
illnesses and are taken to nearby hospitals for treatment.
The warden noted that, while at least four guards must
accompany security prisoners for hospital visits, the African
asylum-seekers go only with a driver and, if hospitalized
overnight, stay by themselves.

Facilities Are Adequate

4. While touring the facility, RefCoord observed that the
African asylum-seekers are kept in a separate section apart
from the security prisoners that is enclosed by a fence.
Inside the fence are six sections, each enclosed by a
concrete wall. Four sections house male Africans and two
sections house women and children. Each male section
contains 12 large tents, with 20 cots to a tent, allowing for
up to 240 men per section. Bathrooms, showers, and a
dining/recreational tent with a TV, ping pong table, and a
game of dominoes were in evidence during the walk-through.
Two sections designated for women and children are much less
crowded, with only 94 women and 55 children (including 18
infants) and each contains a small playground, a dining tent,
bathrooms and showers.

5. Cohen noted that the African residents are allowed two
family visits per month (vice only one for the security
prisoners). Typical family visits are between husbands and
wives living in different sections. Cohen indicated that he
does not face disciplinary problems with this population, and
contrasted the "hugs and smiles" he receives from the
Africans with his normal experience as a warden. RefCoord
witnessed six African men working on building maintenance.
Cohen said that the prison pays the Africans a small
incentive for their work. The prison provides both adults
and children with Hebrew language instruction. Children are
not yet provided with a formal education, although Cohen

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stated his intention to begin transporting roughly 30
school-age children to nearby schools.

6. In brief interactions, one Sudanese man recounted that he
had left Egypt, where he had lived for 5 years, due to
insecurity and poor living conditions. Showing his blue
UNHCR refugee ID card, he complained that Sudanese in Egypt
face constant discrimination and harassment by Egyptian
security forces and that UNHCR had provided them with little
to no assistance. In the women's section, one Eritrean
asylum-seeker described how she had fled her home after her
husband deserted the army. She spent only a few months in
Egypt on the way to Israel and is now separated from her
husband and child. The asylum-seekers said they felt safe
and well cared-for inside Ketziot, but wished to find a
permanent home and be allowed to work.

UNHCR Requests USG Assistance

7. UNHCR Honorary Representative Micky Bavli told RefCoord
December 12 that UNHCR's offices in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem
continue to receive 30 - 40 new African asylum-seekers every
day. Frustrated by the ease with which people can cross
illegally from Egypt into Israel, he said that the new
arrivals now crossing the Sinai originate from Libya,
Lebanon, and other countries in the region. While some are
detained at Ketziot, the IDF releases the majority on the
streets in Be'er Sheva, from where they make their own way to
Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Bavli reported that, of 350 refugee
status determinations (RSDs) UNHCR conducted recently on 200
Nigerians and 150 Turks, not one was determined to be a
bonafide refugee. He admitted that UNHCR lacked experienced
RSD staff to interview African asylum-seekers and requested
USG assistance in this regard.


8. With no end in sight to the growing numbers of African
asylum-seekers in Israel, the GOI is facing some difficult
decisions on what to do with those living in Ketziot prison.
While the facility provides protection and accommodation, it
is clearly not intended to be permanent. Israel's fear that
local integration or third-country resettlement will only
draw many thousands more to Israel is well-founded, but
should not get in the way of finding durable solutions for
those with bonafide refugee claims. End Comment.

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