New Israeli detention center falls flat

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After three days of walking in the cold and snow, many of them on hunger strike, 150 African asylum seekers were forced onto buses and taken back to the new detention center in the Negev desert. The detainees say they want Israel to grant them refugee status and allow them to stay permanently – Israel says they are illegal migrants and should return to their countries as soon as possible.

Last weekend, Israel opened a new “open” detention center called Holot. The migrants were free to come and go during the day, although they had to be present at night. They are also not allowed to work.

The migrants say this new detention center is no better than the jail at Saharonim and the government should legalize their status.

Shouting “Freedom yes, prison no!” and holding signs in Hebrew that read “Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” the 150 cold and hungry Sudanese and Eritreans entered Jerusalem and the remains of the worst snow storm in decades. They were joined by 100 other asylum seekers from Tel Aviv, where many African migrants live, many of them illegally.

When asked why they were marching on parliament, Mubarak, who calls himself a refugee from Sudan who asked not to give his last name, told The Media Line that it is “because we have spent two years in prison, because we need our freedom.”

Mubarak fled Sudan in 2012 because of war, leaving behind his nine brothers and sisters. He crossed the Sinai desert and entered Israel illegally. Since then, he has been imprisoned for much of his time in Israel.

“I miss them very much. If I didn't see them for one hour I would miss them, and I haven’t seen them for almost two years,” Mubarak said.

Israeli officials say the new Holot facility is meant to make life easier for the illegal migrants until they can return to their home countries. Last year Israel deported some 4000 asylum seekers back to south Sudan after the country received independence. The refugees say it is dangerous for them to return and most want to stay permanently in Israel. Israel has granted refugee status to fewer than 200 people since 1948.

“If these people were only seeking to work, they could have gotten to Be'er Sheva and disappeared,” Knesset member Dov Khenin of Hadash told The Media Line. “Instead, they decided to come here united to Jerusalem to deliver a different message, which is that they are asylum seekers and they deserve rights.”

The group of 150 asylum seekers left Holot for Jerusalem on Sunday after a storm brought snow and sub-zero temperatures across much of the country. Some had been on a hunger strike for three days prior to the march. They walked 100 miles wearing only light jackets, jeans and tennis shoes. Some wore sandals, and many suffered from blisters on their feet. At least one was hospitalized for cold-related symptoms.

Israel has been struggling to handle 50,000 asylum seekers who have arrived in the country since 2006, most of whom are from Eritrea and Sudan. Fleeing internal crises, many of the migrants crossed into Israel illegally via the Egyptian border. According to the UN, Israel is not allowed to deport the migrants.

In response to the influx, the Israeli government completed a permanent wall along its southern border with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in 2013 at a cost of over $270 million. After the wall was built, the number of immigrants entering Israel plummeted from almost 10,000 in the first six months of 2012 to fewer than 50 in the second half.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has taken a hard line with the asylum seekers. “The law is the law, and it also applies to illegal infiltrators seeking work,” he said. “The infiltrators who were brought to the special detention center can live in it or can return to their countries.”

Asylum seekers, activists and politicians deride the Holot facility as nothing more than a prison where “freedom” is limited.

“Below the surface the harsh treatment is meant to broadcast a message to deter others from coming, which is unfortunate for Israel which is a state of refugees itself,” Oren Yiftachel, a professor of geography and urban studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva told The Media Line. “Being a Jewish nation we should welcome all the refugees not as citizens but as a haven until they can be in a safe place to live.”

In its early days Israel saw a massive influx of Jewish refugees from all over Europe into the small Jewish state both before and after its founding. Michael Kaminer, an Israeli citizen who came out to support the asylum seekers, said that Israel should be more sympathetic to the plight of the African asylum seekers.

“We are a nation of refugees. A few of my family members died in the Holocaust, so my family would tell me what it was like to be a refugee. These people ran from murder. Us as Jews should understand this tragedy because of our past.”

Mubarak, looking tired and weak from the protest and the long walk from the Negev, said that he cannot go back to Sudan given the current situation. He said he would like to stay in Israel for now because it is safe.

“Walking for eight hours a day is not easy, to live in a desert is not easy, to live in a prison for two years is not easy, and to not have freedom is not easy.”