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The Numbered People

Every Person Has a Name

by NEVE GORDON

Ten days ago some 200 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea marched to Jerusalem to protest against their mistreatment by the Israeli government. They had left a new ‘open’ detention facility in the Negev desert, where they are obliged to spend the night and attend three role calls during the day. They walked for about six hours to the nearest city, Beer-Sheva, my hometown. After spending the night at the bus station, they marched on to Nachshon, a kibbutz that had agreed to put them up for the night. The following day, they continued to the Knesset by bus.

There they demonstrated against an amendment to Israel’s Prevention of Infiltration Law, which allows the state to detain migrants who enter the country illegally for up to a year without trial, and to hold those already in Israel in the open detention facility indefinitely. Almost all the protesters had already spent more than a year in an Israeli prison before being moved to the open detention facility, and most if not all of them had submitted a request for asylum more than a year earlier, but had not received a response from the state. Several hours after the protesters arrived in Jerusalem, officers from the immigration police put them back on buses, some by force, while a clerk in the Ministry of Interior issued an order to imprison them for three months.

This imprisonment order, according to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, has to be reviewed by an administrative tribunal and approved within seven days. But on 23 December, the judge ruled that the tribunal did not have the authority to approve the order, which meant that the state had to release the asylum seekers and transfer them back to the open detention facility.

Yet, as the bells struck midnight on Christmas Eve, the state submitted an appeal to a higher court, asking it to verify the imprisonment order. Asaf Weitzen, a lawyer who works for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants and represents 123 of the asylum seekers, said he was disturbed by the fact that in the appeal the asylum seekers have no names, only numbers.

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The judge on duty scheduled a session for 9 o’clock the following morning: the process usually takes a few weeks. Weitzen asked the judge, Sara Dovrat, to bring the defendants to court in order to guarantee the basic right of the accused to hear the charges being brought against them. Dovrat accepted the state’s position that it was too complicated.

Dovrat went on to rule that the court’s authority to approve the imprisonment of the Sudanese and Eritreans needs to be examined in depth. In the meantime, the unnamed and absent asylum seekers would remain in prison. The judge overlooked an important lesson taught in every Israeli primary school: that the moral imperative that every person has a name is categorical and therefore universal.

Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation. He can be reached through his website.

First published in London Review of Books.