‘For the Europeans, this is a Prison’ – Access and State Performativity at Israel’s Immigration Enforcement



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6 Minutes

Guest post by Ilan Amit. Ilan is a doctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam, Department of Anthropology, AISSR. He received his M.A in Urban Planning from Ben Gurion University in Israel. Ilan has done extensive work, for over a decade, in the fields of political activism and development with Palestinian communities, as part of Israel’s civil society and human rights organisations. This is the second post of Border Criminologies’ themed series on ‘Accessing the Migration Apparatus’ organised by Damian Rosset and Christin Achermann.

‘Reality is horizontal, existing on the surface of fact. Truth is vertical, discovered in the depth of inquiry’

Didier Fassin

Deportation has become an increasingly common mechanism of state control. A practice, which in Israel, only a decade ago appeared as a side note at coercive state regulations, has turned into a ubiquitous normative state practice. By studying deportation regimes, academic researchers consider not only the physical expulsion of noncitizens but also the effects of deportability on their social and labour rights and the threat of forced removal. In so doing, we explore practices and experiences of deportation in various regional and national settings. We also address broader questions, including the ontological significance of freedom of movement, the historical antecedents of deportation, such as banishment and exile, and the development, entrenchment, and consequences of organizing sovereign power and framing individual rights by territory.

My research sets out a crucial, underexplored perspective, on irregular migration: the interface of street-level state agents in shaping practices of deportation. Simply put, it aims to study the system which generates the perceived refugee ‘crisis’ rather than its victims and their suffering.

As academics, we can challenge or preserve the power balance by choosing our objects of study. The study of state deportation regimes is challenging, as access to immigration enforcement agencies is difficult to obtain, and the state mechanisms we wish to study rarely cooperate with academic researchers. Deportation regimes are complex and messy structures: The variety of governmental agencies involved, the possibility to broadly translate policies to various forms of implementation and above all, the motives of street level agents at the implementation interface, turn this bureaucratic monster to an unlikely subject of study. But there are great benefits at doing so. Let’s take a look into the Israeli case.

In the mid 2000’s, some 65,000 African asylum seekers entered Israel via the Sinai desert by foot. In the 5 years that followed, the Israeli state operationalised what is currently considered the most effective anti-irregular migration mechanism in the world. It was comprised of several modules, each serving a unique role in a chain of exclusion and deterrence of African newcomers unwelcome by the Israeli state.

Probably the strongest example of exclusionary and deterring policies was a one year detention period at a the remote ‘Holot’ detention centre in which African asylum seekers were detained after residing inside the country for years. The detention centre, that became operational in 2013, openly intended to coerce asylum-seekers to leave Israel ‘voluntarily’. Detention, under the ‘anti – infiltration’ law, legislated in 2013, is enforced for administrative reasons. Planned to contain 8,000 detainees, Holot is currently operating at low capacity, with 3,500 African asylum seekers under detention; still making it the largest operative migration detention centre in the world. Additionally, Israel adopted a very restrictive asylum policy. In fact, 99.85% of cases are rejected with a clear aim to deter new refugees from arriving and to ensure the departure of those already within the state’s borders.

African asylum seekers returning to an evening biometric head count at the Holot detention centre in the Israeli desert (Photo: Ronny Rozenberg)

Nowadays, over a third of a total of 65,000 African asylum seekers who entered the Israeli state have left, either by deportation, or by ‘voluntary’ departure. The numbers of African asylum seekers in Israel continue to drop and new entries have nearly come to a halt since the construction in January 2013 of a 245-kilometre-long ‘anti-infiltration’ barrier with the Sinai, at a cost of 450 million dollars.

An African asylum seeker constructing the 'anti infiltration fence' on the Egyptian border. The 245-kilometre barrier had brought entries into Israel down to zero. (Photo: Ronny Rozenberg)

Analysing the Israeli deportation regime, through studying policy papers or through the experience of the deportees cannot capture the whole picture. While the former cannot account for decisions on the ground, the latter refers only to the number of consequences suffered. 

An African asylum seeker presenting his documents (Photo: Ronny Rozenberg)

Only by generating a fine-grained ethnography of the everyday implementation of Israel’s immigration enforcement, we can crack the code of the Israeli deterrent regime. This is possible through studying a pivotal group that shapes and influences deportation practices on the ground: Street-level agents and civil servants –  more particularly personnel in Israel’s detention centres, refugee status determination units, street – level enforcement – who are assigned the task of locating, detaining and deporting irregular migrants.

In deep security states, such as Israel, traditional roles of the state and the ethnographer may be redefined, and the ethnographer may find himself under the state’s inspecting eyes. I applied for access to several state agencies composing the Israeli deportation regime, as a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam, conducting research funded by a European Research Committee (ERC) grant. In Israel in general, and specifically within the security related systems and governmental agencies, approach toward Europe may be complex and stratified: On the one hand, European officials receive a cold shoulder from their Israeli parallels for their repeated criticism of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. On the other hand, the amount of Israeli security export to European states in the form of military equipment, migration surveillance systems and border control constantly grows

An African asylum seeker on the beach in Tel Aviv (Photo: Ronny Rozenberg)

Following 5 months of correspondence with the Israeli prison service research committee, during which time I sent formal letters, signed various liability waiver forms and translated them from English to Hebrew and vice versa, I was asked to present my research proposal to a group of Israeli prison service officers, in the hope they would approve my visit to the Holot detention centre. Prior to my presentation, I was asked to send my research proposal, which I polished repeatedly, for it to smoothly read as non-critical, non - intrusive as possible, while still offering a substantial reason for the requested interviews and field visits. The presentation took place at the Ayalon prison, where I underwent a security clearance procedure in order to enter. The committee, 8 uniformed officers at various ranks at the Israeli prison service, had demonstrated very little interest in my presentation, until one of the members asked “who funds this research”? following my reply that the EU does, through an ERC grant, the room fell silent, and 8 pairs of eyes abandoned the laptops and smartphones screens and stared directly at me. One of the officers insisted then allowing me to approach the centre will be ‘very problematic’. Turning to the committee, he stated that:

1st Officer: Seriously? are you seriously considering letting him get in there? for the Europeans this (Holot) is a prison. They look at it and they see a prison. They don’t understand that this is an open centre.

2nd Officer: Yes, but denying him access would be worse, you don’t want to create the impression that Israel has something to hide. He’s got a letter from the EU asking to get in there.

I was then quickly asked to leave the room and wait outside, which I did, wishing I could remain inside, recording the forceful argument proceeding in the room.

In another incident, applying for access to Israel’s Ministry of Interior, I was invited to several ‘meetings’ in which I was repeatedly interviewed by a spokesperson and two different attorneys. I was asked to present my work and research interest, while being confronted with the rationale behind the ministry’s actions by the spokesperson. During those 6 months of correspondence and screenings it was obvious to me that I was not welcomed at the refugee status determination unit. The spokesperson was aware of the time of termination of my fieldwork. I had the understanding that the unit was dragging its feet in the hope that I would simply give up or that my time in Israel would come to an end without me stepping through the doors of the Israeli Ministry of Interior. Additional examples consider my interaction with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Israeli Border Police.

Israeli immigration enforcement agents on their way to conduct arrests in Tel Aviv (Photo: Ronny Rozenberg)

I soon realised, that in order to study the state, I’d have to first evade the state’s loyal servants, inspecting each and every move I made in order to gain access. I had to answer their interrogative questions during interviews and make my presentations banal, so as not to draw further attention to the sensitive aspects of my research interest.  This was a case in which the classic roles of the state and the researcher have changed. The state acted as an ethnographer and the researcher found himself as the object of study. This is exactly why we should be putting an extra effort in accessing the state. While I eventually gained access to most governmental agencies I applied to, I’ve learned a lot about the state simply from the process of gaining access, in some cases, not less than during my interviews with the agencies themselves and my visits to Holot detention centre, after eventually being granted access.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Amit, I. (2017) ‘For the Europeans, this is a Prison’ – Access and State Performativity at Israel’s Immigration Enforcement. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/11/europeans-prison (Accessed [date]).

Found within

Research access
(Field) Research and Methods
Detention centres
Immigration detention
Border control


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