GENEVA: The UN refugee agency Friday warned that Israel could be in breach of international law due to new rules that pave the way for the potentially indefinite detention of asylum-seekers.
Under legislation passed last month which has sparked mass protests by Africans in Israel, people who arrive illegally can be detained for up to a year without trial.
But Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN high commissioner for refugees, warned that the new rules could enable indefinite detention.
Israel has also opened a sprawling detention facility at Holot in the Negev desert to house both new entrants and immigrants already in the country deemed to have disturbed public order.
"Since Holot is housing people who cannot be returned to their countries of origin for reasons to do with non-forced returns, we're concerned that this facility will in effect result in indefinite detention with no release grounds," Edwards told reporters.
"Indefinite detention certainly would be at odds with human rights norms," he added.
Israel's right-wing government has vowed to step up the repatriation of illegal immigrants, saying they pose a threat to the state's Jewish character, but critics counter that the country is not giving genuine asylum-seekers a fair hearing.
Israel currently hosts approximately 53,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, according to UNHCR.
Most managed to cross the desert border with Egypt, before Israel completed a high-tech barrier last year.
Some 36,000 come from Eritrea, whose regime repeatedly has been accused of widespread human rights abuses by the international community.
Another 14,000 are from conflict-torn Sudan.
"UNHCR understand the challenges faced by Israel in managing the reception of migrants and asylum-seekers," said Edwards.
"However, it is important that the treatment of asylum-seekers be in line with international refugee and human rights law. Detaining asylum-seekers should happen only as a last resort, and in exceptional circumstances. It also should be limited to the shortest possible duration."
"People in Holot are going to be in circumstances where their only means of being released is to volunteer to return to their country of origin. And clearly that's of concern to us," he added, explaining that it was tantamount to being returned under duress.