An Educational and Treatment Model of an Alternative to Detention for Unaccompanied Minors from Africa in Israel: The Placement of Adolescents from Eritrea and Sudan, in Residential Schools

Feb. 07, 2016

Prof. Emmanuel Grupper is the head of School of Education & Social Studies at ONO Academic Collegeand staff member at the M.Ed program for youth workers at Beit Berl Academic College, Israel. He is also serving as vice-president for the International Federation for Educative Communities (FICE).

Most of the young refugees crossing the border to Israel lack any documents. The first stage after being caught by law enforcement agencies is placement in immigrant detention centers. One of the challenges of societies and countries that are committed to the values of safeguarding human rights is to find alternatives to the detention of unaccompanied minors. Some countries build special centers for them in which they live among themselves with very limited contact with youngsters from the host country. The experience described herein is a rather successful model practiced in Israel whereby unaccompanied adolescents (age 14-17) are placed in residential schools called 'youth villages' as an alternative to detention.

In Israel there are hundreds of young men and women who came to the country as refugees – asylum seekers – mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, but also from other African countries, during the years 2008-2015. These teens are virtually alone in the country after trekking across the Sinai desert and crossing the border, homeless, without any resources, and exposed to exploitation by various parties. These young people experienced traumatic events in their home countries and/or during the difficult journey to Israel. They suffered from adversity, torture, sexual abuse, demands for ransom money, threats to their families in their home country, and so on. After crossing the border, they were apprehended by the security forces and placed in immigration detention centers in the south.

A Policy Solution

An interministerial committee was established where all ministries and relevant state agencies were represented. The outcome was a new procedure that included a new model for part of the 14-16 age groups. This model consisted of the possibility for unaccompanied minors (UAM) to be integrated into boarding schools, called "youth villages" in Israel, as an alternative to detention. These youth villages made every effort to integrate the Sudanese and Eritrean youth into their existing activities (school, work, and leisure). A total of 11 youth villages agreed to take part in this project.

The professional staff of the youth villages mobilized themselves for this humanitarian mission in an extraordinary way. They were very empathic toward the unaccompanied African youngsters but also considered this program to be a valuable educational tool for Israeli students living in these youth villages. Residential educators explained to them that they, the host youth society, were becoming active participants in a unique humanitarian mission.

Great efforts were invested in the training of the educational staff for coping successfully with this new and complex challenge. First, they had to learn about the geo-political situation in Sudan and Eritrea. Second, they had to become acquainted to with the culture these young people grew up with. The fact that the youngsters had been completely separated from their parents and families forced the residential educators to act as substitute parents (sometimes called 'house-mothers' and 'madrichim').

The resident educators have to assume overall responsibility for these youngsters' comprehensive needs: emotional support, all basic needs such as clothing, school supplies, health and dental care, enrichment and realization of individual talents, part-time jobs that enable them to earn money, and so on.

In addition, the resident educators have to support them with their obligations at school, help them with their Hebrew studies and other subjects they never learned in their homeland, ensure their integration with the Israeli youngsters in whose dormitories they were placed, and find ways to establish some kind of communication with the parents abroad. They had to lobby for the young people and accompany them in their complex and sometimes dangerous contacts with the immigration authorities. Fortunately, the youngsters' native language is Tigrinya, which is spoken by some of the Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel. This enabled therapeutic care services to be provided to those who were in need of them.

In 2015, the completion of the border fence between Israel and Egypt almost stopped the arrival of new UAMs, and the number of minors who require alternatives to detention is shrinking. At the beginning of 2015, only 35 unaccompanied minors were still living in youth villages. During the entire period (2008-2014), more than 400 unaccompanied minors were absorbed successfully in the 11 youth villages.

Updated: Feb. 07, 2016