Illegal migrants released from detention barred from Tel Aviv, Eilat

Some 1,200 illegal migrants who will be released from a Negev detention facility will not be allowed to settle in Tel Aviv or Eilat.

The migrants, mostly asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, will receive a temporary residence permit when they leave the Holot center that will prevent them from entering the two cities, where the majority of illegal migrants from Africa are living.

Public Security Minister Silvan Shalom proposed the plan, which the courts reportedly have approved.

The migrants are due to be released on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to reports. The releases come two weeks after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the provision in the current “anti-infiltration law” allowing the migrants to be held for up to 20 months at the Holot center is “disproportionate.” The court ordered that they can only be detained for up to 12 months while the law is revised.

The Knesset has six months to revise the law, which passed its final readings in December.

More than 40,000 Eritreans and Sudanese are in Israel, most illegally.

Israel’s Supreme Court limits illegal migrants’ detention to 12 months

Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that illegal migrants can only be held in a Negev detention facility for 12 months while a law is revised.

The provision in the current “anti-infiltration law” allowing the migrants to be held for up to 20 months at the Holot detention center is “disproportionate,” the court said.

The Knesset has six months to revise the law, which passed its final readings in December.

Several Israeli nongovernmental organizations have petitioned against the law.

Under the measure, an amendment to an existing infiltration law, illegal migrants can be held in closed detention centers for three months and then kept at the Holot open detention center in the Negev for up to 20 months, where they will be required to be present at a head count once a day rather than three times.

In September, the Supreme Court ordered the state to close the Holot center and struck down the section of the amendment that allows the illegal migrants to be held in closed detention for one year.

Had the new law not been passed before the Knesset dissolved, the court would have required the freeing of all 2,500 migrants being held at in Holot.

More than 40,000 Eritreans and Sudanese are in Israel, most illegally.

Prior to the court’s announcement of its decision, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that invalidating the existing legislation would be a “declaration that south Tel Aviv is the official facility for accommodating infiltrators.”

Following the decision, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that the court “has accepted in principle the state’s position, according to which the illegal influx of labor migrants is unacceptable and that they may be held in order to achieve the necessary deterrence. The ruling will be studied and the state will act to implement it.”

19th Knesset’s dying wish: Drive Africans from Israel

One hour before the 19th Israeli Knesset, or parliament, dissolved forever on Dec. 8, its members made a last-ditch effort to save Holot, the “open” desert prison they created one year prior to detain undocumented Eritrean and Sudanese immigrants.

On the table was a fifth amendment to the half-century-old Anti-Infiltration Law — created to prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to Israel, but amended in recent years to govern the fate of 50,000 Africans who trekked to Israel’s southern border seeking work and asylum.

The latest amendment comes in response to a Supreme Court ruling in September that found Holot to be unconstitutional. Instead of closing it completely, Knesset members proposed that individual prison terms be limited to 20 months, and that prisoner check-ins be cut from three times per day to once each night.

After the final tally on the night of Dec. 8, the bill passed 41 to 29.

Members of the 19th Knesset, known for their high-drama plenum battles, used the vote to stage a final showdown of ideals.

“[We must] keep this country as the nation-state of the Jewish people and not invite a situation in which thousands of infiltrators come here to find work,” said right-wing Knesset member Miri Regev, a member of the prime minister’s Likud Party. “It’s a disgrace that parties who call themselves Zionist, like the Labor Party, opposed this bill.”

Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz, a former TV reporter belonging to the leftist Meretz Party, fired back. “It’s too bad Regev and the interior minister didn’t read the High Court’s first verdict overturning the law,” he said. “They would have understood that in a democratic state, it is impossible to imprison people without a trial. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Blacks from Africa, blonds from Sweden or people from Tel Aviv or Yeruham.”

Between 1,000 and 2,000 asylum seekers waited outside Ministry of Interior offices all day on Nov. 8, but none were admitted inside.

The goal of the new legislation, as stated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when it was drafted on Nov. 30, is to continue driving undocumented Africans out of Israel.

“It fits the reality,” Netanyahu said of the law. “It also fits the rulings of the High Court of Justice. I remind you that Israel has achieved the extraordinary, which I’m very proud of, in blocking illegal migration across our borders — zero illegal migrants. Part of this entails repatriating illegal migrants. This year we repatriated over 6,000
illegal migrants. This legislation is designed to enable us to continue this trend.”

Tel Aviv University law professor Aeyal Gross pointed out that in the Supreme Court majority opinion, Justice Uzi Vogelman wrote that the legal question “isn’t solely quantitative — what is the maximum constitutional length of time for detention in custody — but whether it’s permissible to detain someone in custody for whom there is no effective deportation procedure. To this question I respond … absolutely not.”

Bashir Adam Abdalla, one Sudanese asylum seeker among approximately 2,500 prisoners currently living in rows of tightly packed containers on the remote Holot campus, already has served 10 months. He said another 10 feels like “forever.”

Abdalla said two of his fellow Holot prisoners — who are also his childhood friends from the Blue Nile region of Sudan — recently accepted Israel’s offer of $3,500 to return home. They are among the hundreds now thought to be jailed or disappeared by the Sudanese government after returning from Israel.

“They have a problem in their country, but Israel didn’t help them,” Abdalla said.

Neither Israel’s political left nor right seems very pleased in the wake of the vote. Pundits on both sides called the law a lesser evil that didn’t solve core issues — namely, reducing poverty and crime in South Tel Aviv, where the African immigrants are concentrated.

A 20-month prison term is “without any logic,” said Anat Ovadia, spokeswoman for Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, one of the Israeli nongovernmental organizations that took the Knesset to court for creating Holot. When prisoners are released back into the Israeli public, she said, “They will be in worse shape than before. Before they go to prison, they build a life, a job, a community — and now they have to start all over again. It will make problems for everyone.”

Ministry of Interior security guards said they would not admit any asylum seekers into the Bnei Brak visa center until they formed a more organized line.

Hotline for Refugees and Migrants scored a separate legal victory in late November, when around 180 Holot prisoners were freed on the grounds that they’d already been jailed in Israel for two years without trial.

Last night, by comparison, was a disappointment. “I’m really frustrated, since I believed we could win this time,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator at Hotline.

But the organization plans once again to fight the latest edition of the Anti-Infiltration Law at the Supreme Court level. “[We hope] the next Knesset will finally promote an appropriate solution to South Tel Aviv’s Israeli residents and asylum seekers alike, instead of more incitement and populism,” Hotline said in a statement.

The opposition isn’t much happier. Yonatan Jakubowicz, PR director for the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, an advocacy organization for Israelis living in South Tel Aviv, said that, in general, residents “expected a much stricter law — something more effective.” Especially, he said, after they saw that the law in its previous form, which allowed for indefinite detention at Holot, convinced more than 6,000 Africans to leave Israel.

“The new law is better than the worst evil,” he said. “But I’m skeptical that 20 months in Holot will get the effect we’re looking for, which is that economic migrants will go back to their home countries.”

However, Jakubowicz is hopeful that a less-publicized economic penalty included in the new amendment — one his organization has long been pushing for — will separate migrant workers from asylum seekers.

Under the law, undocumented Africans — thousands of whom have applied for asylum but either have been rejected or received no response — now will have to hand over 20 percent of their salaries to the Israeli government, money that will be returned to them only upon departure from Israel. Employers, too, will pay fines for keeping them on staff.

“Once we take away the option of working, they’ll go back to their countries,” Jakubowicz said.

This could have far-reaching implications for employers of Israel’s Sudanese and Eritrean workforce — a fixture in hotels and restaurants across the country.

The law “may turn them into very expensive employees, much more than an Israeli,” said Shabtai Shay, director of the Eilat Hotel Association in the resort city in the south.

The problem with this, he said, is that Eilat hotels haven’t been able to find Israeli citizens willing to do the job: “There was a plan to hire Israelis, but it failed,” he said. “Israelis didn’t want to come wash dishes and clean floors.”

According to Shay, it’s too soon to predict how employers will respond when the law goes into effect. “We are not fighting for the rights of the refugees,” he emphasized. “We try to employ them in a normal, regular way. But if we can’t, we need an alternative … or it will be reflected in hotel prices.”

Eritrean woman Okbit Demsas, right, said she had been waiting at the tucked-away Bnei Brak facility for almost a week. She showed the Journal a log of hundreds of names that she and other organizers had created to keep track of who was next in line.

Economic sanctions appear to be the new frontier of Israel’s African expulsion plan. The Knesset vote corresponded with a clear push by the Israeli Ministry of Interior to tighten the visa application process for Sudanese — and especially Eritrean — workers. 

In the weeks leading up to the vote, ministry officials closed all African processing centers in central and northern Israel — save for one makeshift office set up in Bnei Brak, a religious suburb on Tel Aviv’s northeastern edge. 

On Dec. 8, Roni Fisher, the employee manager at a popular Tel Aviv marriage hall, rode his motorcycle up to Bnei Brak. Visas for his three Eritrean staff members had expired days before, and the men couldn’t come back to work without proper papers. (Most visas issued to African asylum seekers are good for around two months before they need to be renewed.) Not understanding the holdup, Fisher headed to the ministry to vouch for them.

He was shocked by the scene he found there. “This is the first time it’s like this,” Fisher said.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 asylum seekers, among them dozens of pregnant women and parents toting small children, were crowded around a Ministry of Interior tent that had been erected in a slummy industrial area of Bnei Brak. Babies were crying. Pieces of cardboard littered an abandoned warehouse next door. Asylum seekers had been sleeping there overnight, afraid of losing their spot in line or getting caught by police without papers.  

Terminated or suspended from their jobs until their visas could be renewed, many had nowhere else to be. 

“I’ve been here since last Wednesday,” said 28-year-old Okbit Demsas, a young Eritrean mother. “There is no food, no water, no restrooms. It’s a terrible place.”

Okbit said she couldn’t return to her job as a janitor in Tel Aviv without a new visa. “If I can’t work, I can’t survive,” she said. “I will be kicked out of my apartment because I can’t pay the rent.”

Shielded from Bnei Brak’s looming Yes Planet mall complex by a few jumbo billboards and a highway overpass, the area surrounding the Ministry of Interior setup had become a temporary ghetto overflowing with African asylum seekers who had traveled from their apartments all over the country — Netanya, Herzliya, Tiberias — to secure legal status.

Asylum seekers in line told the Journal that only a handful of people had been admitted into the tent complex over the entire week prior.

Ministry of Interior spokeswoman Sabine Haddad would not provide the Journal with specific numbers of visa applications processed over this time period. Asked what caused the crisis in Bnei Brak, she said by phone on Dec. 9: “I know that yesterday, more than 2,500 people came there, and it’s a lot more than they can receive. But let me check that.” Later, she wrote in a text message: “We try our best to give good service.” Haddad did not respond to further requests for comment.

The situation outside Ministry of Interior offices changed considerably when, days into the crisis, a Jewish Journal reporter entered the premises.

Asked by the Journal why the line wasn’t moving, security guards said the Africans were acting too rowdy and impatient, and that it would be a security hazard to let them inside.

“They say they want order, but there are so many people here, there can never be order,” said Fisher, the Tel Aviv employer at the scene. (An elderly Bnei Brak resident walked by just then, looking bewildered. “What is all this?” she asked Fisher.)

Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid Party — whose votes critically swayed the new decision to keep Holot open — wrote on his Facebook page on Dec. 5 that Israel needed to separate Sudanese asylum seekers from Eritreans. The former, he said, should be treated “as Holocaust survivors. On the other hand, Eritrean labor migrants, who constitute the majority of those who infiltrated into the country, should be treated as illegal immigrants.”

(Lapid and others in his party, however, voted in favor of the Holot solution, which keeps hundreds of Sudanese asylum seekers jailed without trial and pressures others to return to Sudan.)

Eritreans in line at the Bnei Brak visa center rejected Lapid’s claim. Teclit Beyene, 24, described escaping from prison and fleeing Eritrea after he was jailed for giving a school presentation critical of the dictatorship. Another young man showed the Journal stripes of scar tissue running up his arms — left over from months of torture in the Sinai desert. He said he had been kidnapped from a Sudanese refugee camp by Bedouin traffickers and dumped at the Israeli border fence once his family paid a $30,000 ransom.

Okbit Demsas said she had also been tortured for weeks in the Sinai — all while her Bedouin captors held her small son in the room next door. 

In Israel, Demsas has been working as a janitor at the Channel 2 news studio in Tel Aviv. On Dec. 8, she contacted her employer about the situation. By the time Channel 2 news reporter Gilad Shalmor showed up in Bnei Brak the next morning, the Ministry of Interior office had begun handing out visas again at a slow trickle.

Ministry spokeswoman Haddad texted photos that security guards had snapped of Shalmor outside the Bnei Brak offices to the reporter’s own phone, asking if he needed her help with anything.

Said Channel 2’s Eritrean janitor, Demsas: “That’s why they hide us here. They don’t want anyone to see what they’re doing.”

Israel forced to rethink ‘unconstitutional’ African expulsion plan

A historic 216-page ruling handed down on Sept. 22 by the Supreme Court of Israel marks a breakthrough for the young country’s muddled migrant and refugee law.

In their decision, seven members of the nine-justice panel struck down a recent amendment to Israel’s decades-old Anti-Infiltration Law, declaring it unconstitutional.

“We are dealing with laws based on which thousands of people are held, in violation of their freedom and dignity, in the middle of the remote desert,” Justice Uzi Fogelman wrote in his stern majority opinion.

In short, the Israeli justices decided that the government is no longer allowed to jail indefinitely and without trial any of the approximately 50,000 African migrants and asylum seekers who have “infiltrated” Israel’s southern border fence over the past eight years.

“A democratic society cannot deprive for such a period of time the freedom of people who do not represent a danger and are not serving a sentence for a crime they committed,” Fogelman wrote in the decision.

According to the ruling, the Holot prison facility — a fenced-in grid of living containers built last year as the latest addition to Israel’s expanding prison complex in the Negev desert, across the road from a cattle farm — must be shut down within 90 days. 

“People are dancing; people are giving speeches,” Sudanese inmate Jamal Yacob said by phone from prison on the night of the ruling.

Speaking a week later, however, Yacob said the mood at Holot had taken a downward turn — “because we don’t know what will happen from the Ministry of Interior.”

If the ministry follows court orders, it will release the more than 2,500 jailed migrants and asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, back into the Israeli public by the end of December.

But even before the ruling came down, right-wing members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, were already brainstorming ways to circumvent the ruling.

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the religious Jewish Home Party chairwoman Ayelet Shaked, along with nine other Knesset members, drafted a bill that would allow them to resurrect legislation that contradicts the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom — the Israeli law on which the Holot ruling was based.

Outgoing Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who abruptly and unexpectedly announced his resignation just days before the court issued its ruling, reiterated this solution in a press statement. “We must consider amending the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom in a way that will restrict the High Court’s intervention in Knesset legislation that aims to cope with infiltration and infiltrators into Israel,” he said.

Israel’s set of “basic laws” is its version of a constitution — so, if this plan goes through, the Knesset would be amending Israel’s constitution in order to keep Africans behind bars.

“Theoretically they could do that, but I think it would be extremely controversial,” said Yonatan Berman, a human-rights attorney on the winning team. He said that within the coalition of five right-wing parties that form a majority in the current Knesset, “the Jewish Home Party and some members of the Likud Party are pushing for that, but I think other parts of the coalition, like Yesh Atid and Hatnua, who perceive themselves as more liberal, would resist. It would be a big fight, not only between that coalition but between other coalitions.”

Berman said he hopes Sa’ar’s yet-to-be-named replacement for interior minister will maintain a healthier distance from the Holot issue, which was seen as one of Sa’ar’s pet projects.

“Hopefully, whoever comes into office won’t see this as a personal insult or defeat,” Berman said, “and will not feel the political urge to immediately try to overcome or bypass the Supreme Court judgment.”

On the other hand, some Tel Aviv residents who supported the creation of Holot feel abandoned by Sa’ar.

“It definitely came as a shock,” said 28-year-old South Tel Aviv neighborhood activist and TV news darling May Golan of the minister’s departure. “I sat with him for several meetings. I believed in the man. I looked him straight in the eyes. It hurts. We do believe the minister that will come after will continue on the same route, but it’s a big disappointment because he promised us he would do something.”

In a last-minute plea to Supreme Court justices, Golan staged a quiet rally outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on Sept. 15. At the event, she invited nine of her fellow South Tel Aviv residents to tell anecdotes about African crime — from petty theft to rape — to nine empty chairs lined up before them, symbolizing the nine justices on the panel.

“They’re about to make a verdict that will affect these people’s entire lives,” Golan told the Journal after the event. “I want the judges to hear them.”

A back-roads approach

Elsewhere in Tel Aviv, about a week before the Supreme Court ruling, 34-year-old asylum seeker Nimer Ishag — who came to Israel from the razed village of Narjiba in Darfur, Sudan — sat in the cramped second-story offices of Daniel Bar, a Russian-Israeli lawyer well-known in the Sudanese and Eritrean communities.

Bar has spent the past few months devising lower-profile ways to keep a handful of Darfuri clients, including Ishag, out of prison.

Russian-Israeli attorney Daniel Bar, right, is appealing the state’s decision to send his client, Sudanese asylum seeker Nimer Ishag, left, to Holot.

Ishag clutched a stack of legal papers pertaining to his case — his ticket to a few more months of freedom. The asylum seeker had been summoned to the desert prison in July, and would be living there now had he not sought out private legal help.

“The attack on my village happened before my eyes,” Ishag told the Journal, explaining why he left Darfur. “I saw them light my house on fire. I saw them kill my brother.”

Across the table from Ishag, a polished young Palestinian attorney from Jaffa who works with Bar translated Ishag’s story from Arabic to English. Her eyes widened in sympathy as he described hiding in the forest for weeks with other members of his tribe while the Sudanese military, in collaboration with Janjaweed militia, tried to hunt them down. 

While he was on the run, the asylum seeker said, “My wife gave birth. She died in our second camping place, from fatigue. She couldn’t continue. The baby died two days later.”

When he can bear it, Ishag talks by phone to his only surviving son — now 8 years old and living with Ishag’s parents in a refugee camp in Sudan.

“He knows I’m his father, but he doesn’t understand why I’m far away,” Ishag said, trembling. “All the time he says, ‘Come home, come home.’ ”

Ishag said he had to escape the camp because government soldiers, in cahoots with the Janjaweed, were sneaking in at night to kidnap or kill young men from his tribe — part of an ethnic genocide still plaguing the Darfuri people today.

“Because I’m from Darfur, and because I’m coming from Israel, I’m afraid they will kill me if I go back,” he said.

Apart from Ishag, Bar’s other clients resisting indefinite sentences at Holot include two men tortured by Bedouins in the Sinai desert before being dumped at the Israeli border fence, a former spy for the Sudanese rebels and a former fighter in the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA).

A photo of the latter, holding a gun next to a truck marked “SLA,” is now propped on Bar’s window sill.

“These are the success stories,” the attorney said, pulling a pile of red file folders from his file cabinet. “Most of the human-rights organizations are narrative oriented. I’m result oriented.”

All Holot summonses have been halted as of press time on Sept. 30, but if the Israeli Knesset finds a way to keep Holot open, or draws up another plan to drive undocumented Africans out of the country — as is widely expected — Bar’s results may be lifesaving.

The attorney has accompanied multiple clients to their four- to six-hour asylum interviews, where, he said, Ministry of Interior staff try relentlessly to find a hole, no matter how small, in every answer. “As a normal smart person, you have no chance” of approval, Bar said. “They will prove you wrong in everything.”

Under international law, Israel is not allowed to forcibly deport Eritreans or Sudanese nationals because of dangers in their home countries.

However — as noted in the recent Supreme Court decision — the Israeli Ministry of Interior has avoided setting up a functional asylum application system that would differentiate between individuals. 

“The true picture of who is an infiltrator is certainly more complex than any party wishes to present,” Fogelman wrote in his majority opinion. However, he said, “Alongside the economic motive, it can be assumed that many of the infiltrators [came] to the State of Israel … to escape from the dangers they face in their country.”

Elsewhere around the world, on average, about 80 percent of Eritreans and 70 percent of Sudanese seeking asylum are approved as refugees.

Under pressure from African protesters — as well as news media and human-rights organizations — Israel began accepting asylum applications within the past year. But as of March 2014, of a few thousand applications handed in, it had rejected 450 and approved only two. The rest were pending. (Thousands more applications have reportedly been turned in since March; however, the ministry could not provide the Journal with updated statistics.)

So, bypassing Israel’s broken asylum process, private attorney Bar has been putting his clients’ harrowing backstories to use in a different way. He’s been describing their ordeals in Sudan at length within court appeals against their mandatory Holot summonses — on the grounds that the pre-prison “hearings” currently held by the Ministry of Interior don’t take into account any of the asylum seekers’ testimony. 

“They just let him talk and send him to Holot without even addressing what happened in the room,” Bar said.

“This does not qualify as a hearing,” he said. “It’s a monologue, at best.”

Bar’s tactics appear to be breaking new ground.

A few of his clients have been granted temporary freedom from Holot as the appeal process plays out between Bar and the state. Their suspended sentences all have been granted by one judge in the north: Haifa District Court Vice President Ron Shapiro, a left-leaning judge hailing from Kibbutz Degania Alef, Israel’s oldest kibbutz. 

Now that Holot has been outlawed, Shapiro has invited Bar to try to take the appeal process in a direction of his choosing.

In his next response, Bar said he plans to demand the Israeli Ministry of Interior grant his clients some kind of real status in Israel — integrating them into the system instead of seeking another way to push them out.

‘Make their lives miserable’

In his decision outlawing Holot, Fogelman wrote: “The heart understands the difficulties, but the mind cannot accept the chosen solution.”

The “difficulties” in question form the core argument against letting Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers stay in Israel: Their overcrowded presence in certain low-income Israeli neighborhoods, and mostly in South Tel Aviv, has angered many longtime residents who hold the Africans responsible for the culture of crime and poverty around them.

Tel Aviv police have not released any comprehensive data comparing crime rates between native Israelis and African migrants; however, South Tel Aviv activist Golan claimed to the Journal that “every seven minutes, an infiltrator commits a crime in South Tel Aviv.” She said she has spoken with “hundreds” of women raped by Africans.

“I’m just so upset,” she said by phone a few hours after the court ruling came down. “I’m 28 — I can pick my things up and go out of my neighborhood. But the 70-year-olds, the 80-years-olds — they can’t. The court is abandoning a whole society of people who have nowhere to go. It’s heartbreaking.”

Lizi Hameiri, another Israeli activist at Golan’s rally, told a group of reporters, “South Tel Aviv is our Harlem.” She held up a sign that read, in English, “A refugee will not rape, beat and rob his host! Nearly all of them are illegal work migrants!”

Walking the streets of South Tel Aviv and speaking to residents on a summer evening, one can see that the situation is more complex. Filipino, African and Israeli children wearing tiny backpacks walk home from school hand in hand. A circle of Russian men playing cards along Neve Sha’anan — the central walking street that runs through the neighborhood, bursting with African food and dialects — greet their Sudanese friends who have been granted a day pass out of Holot. An elderly Israeli man runs to help an Eritrean toddler waddling toward his ball, which has rolled into a gutter.

Like with any ethnic group, “There are some good, some bad,” said Omar N., a young Palestinian man who moved from Hebron to South Tel Aviv for work, of the African migrants. He said some of his Eritrean and Sudanese friends came looking for a better life, while some escaped real threats in their home country. “It’s half and half,” he said.

In street interviews with the Journal, various Israeli residents blamed the government’s lack of investment in the neighborhood, rather than the Africans, for its dilapidated state.

“People are hypocrites,” said Anat Erez, a 45-year-old Israeli woman who has worked for many years at a furniture store near Tel Aviv’s famously seedy Central Bus Station. “Before the Africans came, there was always crime, there were always druggies — it was actually worse.”

In 2012, then-Minister of Interior Eli Yishai revealed to Israeli news site Ynet his plan for handling infiltrators: “For the time being, I plan to lock them up,” he said. “This I can do without anyone’s authorization. I am doing it for the good of the State of Israel. I have asked the Treasury for a budget increase to build more detention facilities, and until I can deport them, I’ll lock them up to make their lives miserable.”

During spring 2014, even those not summoned to Holot began encountering chaos at new, cramped Ministry of Interior offices set up specifically for illegal Africans in a back alley of North Tel Aviv. They waited in line for hours — sometimes days — for residency visas that would last a few weeks or months. Some were turned away without any papers at all, leaving them unable to work and subject to roundup by Tel Aviv police.

“There are refrigerator-size people guarding the entrance” to the Ministry of Interior building, attorney Bar said. And inside, he said, “Everything is very physical. They grab you when they want you to sit down or get up. They’re treating you like a Hamas prisoner in the middle of Tel Aviv.”

As a result of government efforts, about 6,000 Sudanese and Eritrean nationals accepted $3,500 from the Israeli government to board planes to Sudan, Eritrea, Uganda or Rwanda over the past year.

The latter two countries made a back-room agreement with Israel to accept the migrants, but are reportedly now denying them legal, long-term residency and deporting some to their home countries upon arrival. Thus the exodus has resulted in a humanitarian disaster, in which hundreds of Sudanese and Eritrean men who left Israel are now being tortured, jailed or disappeared completely back in their native countries.

Departures since have slowed to around 150 per month. And new arrivals are almost at a standstill, thanks in part to a new, $400 million fence along Israel's southern border.

South Tel Aviv resident Orly Levi, a mother of three who said she is afraid to let her children leave the house at night, said the small exodus of thousands of the Africans has had zero impact on the neighborhood. “Holot is not enough,” she said. “The prison should just be a temporary solution — a preparation for the final step” of expelling them all from Israel.

Balance of power

Last week’s high-profile Supreme Court ruling against locking up undocumented Africans wasn’t the first of its kind.

One year ago, in a very similar decision — also around the September holidays — the justices struck down a previous amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law that allowed Israel to lock up illegal aliens for three years without trial at Saharonim, another prison in the desert complex.

In that ruling, Justice Edna Arbel wrote: “I would like to believe that the state will find a way to deal with the situation with the means at its disposal, so as to relieve the stress of local residents.”

The Knesset responded by simply adding an amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law that would allow them to open Holot — an “open facility” run by the Israel Prison Service next door to Saharonim. Holot inmates could come and go from the facility but would be required to check in inside the camp three times each day.

Holot prisoners wait in long lines at the front gate to enter or exit the facility, and must check in three times per day.

Arbel, in the final decision of her 10-year career, now condemns the amended law as “the same old lady in a new dress.”

Some members of the Knesset took this as a challenge to their authority.

Said Jewish Home Party chairwoman Shaked in her press statement on the ruling: “It’s time to change the way judges are selected, from cloning judges in the ‘buddy system’ to a balance between activism and conservatism.”

Yariv Levin, chairman of the ruling Likud Party, called the ruling “post-Zionist” and said it “undermines Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state and tramples the Knesset’s sovereignty.”

Sa’ar wrote on Facebook: “The last word must be that of the legislature.”

The court tried to soften the blow to the Knesset in its decision: “We do not seek to plow a field without the permission of the legislature,” Fogelman wrote.

He stressed that he was not advising elected leaders on how to do their jobs. “We held a judicial review,” Fogelman wrote. “We did not examine the wisdom of the law; we examined the constitutionality.”

Of finding Holot unconstitutional, he wrote: “We did it without desire; we did it out of obligation.”

Still, the ruling reportedly marks the first time in Israel’s history that the Supreme Court ever has struck down a law twice in a row. And its language demands the next solution be more than a runaround — and that it fall more closely in line with international law. 

Arbel opined that, considering the hefty and sudden burden of African asylum seekers on the small country of Israel — and contrary to media reports — Israel has reacted more kindly than some Western countries might.

However, Fogelman wrote in his majority opinion, “There is a discrepancy between state law and the norms of international law that bind the State of Israel.” 

Judges found that the maximum holding period for illegal aliens in most Western countries doesn’t exceed a few months. And even in countries with the harshest detention policies, they said, there are ways for detainees to request asylum or otherwise move forward in immigration court. 

Human-rights attorney Berman, on the winning team, said another noted difference between this September’s decision and the last was that judges acknowledged personal freedoms “beyond the biological ability to survive.”

“There is some very strong language that we haven’t seen before, about seeing asylum seekers as whole human beings who have personalities and human needs and plans for the future — spiritual, intellectual, social needs,” Berman said. “For me, it’s an obvious thing to say, but it’s an important thing.”

On a blistering September afternoon, 26-year-old Nouradin Adam, a young asylum seeker from Darfur who spent years working in Israel and learning Hebrew before he was summoned to Holot, said he’s watched many of his fellow prisoners sink into a deep depression.

“This situation makes you stop dreaming,” he said. “Yesterday is the same as today, and tomorrow will be the same.”


Aside from total expulsion, Israel has for years avoided drafting policy to accommodate its new population of 50,000 African migrants and asylum seekers.

In 2009, a Knesset report found that “the State of Israel is the only Western Democratic State that has no immigration policy.”

And by the end of 2011, another Knesset report found that “close to five years after the start of the massive infiltration of African asylum seekers, the State of Israel still lacks a coherent policy to cope with this phenomenon and to determine the rights and duties of this population and care for their needs.”

Reut Michaeli, executive director of Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Israel’s oldest non-governmental organization advocating for African asylum seekers, argued that the new   ruling should be viewed as “a window of opportunity.”

“I really, really hope the government will be able to see that,” she said. “We need to learn from our lessons and create something different for the benefit for everyone. That should be the public debate — not what we should do next to those ‘infiltrators,’ but how do we build a transparent, functioning, humane, professional system that provides for everyone? For asylum seekers, but also for the [Israeli] veterans” living in South Tel Aviv.

According to an investigation by Haaretz, Israel spent well over $100 million to build and operate Holot over the past year.

If that money were to be invested in South Tel Aviv, Michaeli said, “How many health clinics can you build, and how many schools? How many social workers can you hire? What kind of services can you provide to the community? What kind of community centers can you build that allow people living together to get to know each other?”

Most recently, in a May 2014 report, Israel’s state comptroller scolded the government for avoiding the problem entirely.

“Indeed, the two groups — foreigners and citizens — are intertwined with one another,” he wrote, “especially in the areas where many of the foreigners reside. Neglect of one group by the state undermines and damages the living conditions of the other.”

Although he acknowledged the task is “wide in scope and complex,” the comptroller said that “in light of the severe plight of the South Tel Aviv residents and the danger to their well-being and health, it must be carried out without delay.”

In its historic ruling last week, the Supreme Court of Israel urged the same.

“There is no dispute that the state of affairs in South Tel Aviv is difficult and demands attention,” Fogelman wrote. However, he added, “State agencies face the duty to find appropriate solutions. The plight of the residents of South Tel Aviv … is in the hands of the legislature.” 

Israel Supreme Court: Holot illegal, Africans jailed in desert must be freed within 90 days

The Supreme Court of Israel ruled this evening to close a desert prison called Holot, a facility that Israeli lawmakers created last December to indefinitely hold African asylum seekers who had “infiltrated” the border.

According to the whopping 216-page decision on the “Anti-Infiltration Law” that allows for their detention, the state must release all prisoners within 90 days.

“Everybody is so happy here,” said Darfuri refugee Jamal Yacob over the phone from Holot. “People are dancing, people are giving speeches — wow, we are so happy here in Holot.”

Read more on Simone Wilson's “Hella Tel Aviv”

Exodus to Egypt? Why African migrants marched on Israel’s border

For two years, Israel’s government has been encouraging its population of African migrants to leave the country.

But when 1,000 Eritreans and Sudanese marched on Israel’s southwestern border on Friday, they couldn’t get through to Egypt. After two days of camping out in protest on the border, the hundreds who remained were arrested Sunday by Israeli authorities and placed in prison.

“We are a state,” Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabin Haddad told JTA. “To just go to the border and cross, you can’t do that. Whoever wants to leave needs to do it according to protocol.”

When it allows migrants to leave, Israel will only permit their return to their home countries — where they would face repressive regimes — or to one of a few third-party countries whose identity Israel has declined to publicize. Israel provides grants of $3,500 to those who leave.

For those who remain in Israel, the government has built a detention facility near the Egyptian border, called Holot, that now houses more than 2,000 people. Detainees receive food, shelter and health care, but their freedom of movement is restricted as they must stand for roll call three times daily. The detainees have no release date. Failure to show for roll call, or refusal to answer the summons to Holot, are punishable with prison time.

“It was horrible to be in Holot and to be in prison,” said Philemon Rezene, 26, an Eritrean chosen to represent the protesters at a Tel Aviv news conference Sunday. “They had a very miserable life. There was a shortage of food, a shortage of sanitation, a shortage of medical care. They were always under strict control. They wanted at least to be free in an open area.”

The migrants’ march on the border is the latest stage in their conflict with the Israeli government. The migrants are seeking asylum from Eritrea and Sudan, which are ruled by repressive regimes.

But Israel says they are economic migrants seeking a higher standard of living, and it fenced off its border with Egypt in 2012 to prevent future migrants from entering. Anyone who crosses Israel’s border illegally now faces a year in prison.

Last year, Israel approved the financial grants for voluntary departure and opened the Holot facility. Approximately 3,000 out of Israel’s African migrant population of 60,000 have chosen to voluntarily depart.

Chafing at their restrictions, the detainees who marched toward the Egyptian border last week aimed to cross into Egypt and wait there for assistance from the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, according to Liat Bolzman, an Israeli who accompanied them.

Blocked by Israeli border guards, the protesters set up camp on the border, sheltering themselves with sheets, and surviving on food and water brought by supporters.

Two days after the initial march, units of Israeli immigration police and border guards forcibly dispersed the camp and sent the remaining protesters to Saharonim Prison, next to Holot. Bolzman said six protesters were injured during the operation.

“They were ready to cross,” she said. “It’s better than sitting in the detention center for they don’t know how much time. They said we can’t live like this anymore, we’re ready to take this risk and cross the border rather than be here.”

But though the migrants say they are fed up with Israel, crossing the border and receiving U.N. help in Egypt may not be realistic.

Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is known among migrants for harrowing stories of kidnapping and torture. And the representative in Israel of the U.N. high commissioner for refugees said that migrants who cross the border without proper documentation should not expect prompt assistance from the United Nations.

“In order to make this possible, you can’t just start marching for the border,” said the representative, Walpurga Englbrecht, while also urging Israel to improve conditions for migrants. “You cannot just assume everything will be arranged at the end if there are no arrangements made beforehand. If you go to another country, you need a passport. You need an entry visa.”

Anat Ovadia, spokeswoman for Israel’s Hotline for Migrant Workers, an aid organization, suggested that the goal of the march was more to gain Israeli sympathy for the migrants, not for them to cross the border.

“This step was a protest step to get Israel’s attention and get U.N. attention,” Ovadia said. “It’s a testament to how much Israel is despairing them.”

Leaving Israel, Africans face detention, possibly death

“When the conflict started in the Darfur region and we came to Israel, all the people knew why,” said Yeman Adam, a 30-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker who fled to Israel in 2008. “The media was making comparisons between the Holocaust and Darfur genocide, and the Israeli government accepted us.”

As he spoke, Adam sat in the underground headquarters for the group he founded, the Dakaraw Termenan Organization: a freshly painted white room in South Tel Aviv lined in shut-down computers and fringed in royal-blue curtains. The room was empty except for Adam and two friends. They all come from the Masalit tribe, one of various Darfuri tribes targeted by the Sudanese government.

“We used to have hundreds of people in this office. You couldn’t find a chair to sit here,” Adam continued. But now, thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers are being pushed out of Tel Aviv — some returning to Africa, and others moving to the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, the new prison complex constructed near the border with the Sinai desert.

Adam and the handful of Masalit tribe members still living in Tel Aviv have been trying to get in touch with seven men in their tribe, all of whom departed Israel for Sudan’s Khartoum International Airport within the last few weeks.

They’ve all gone missing.

Those seven missing Masalit are part of a growing crisis. Since the exodus began in December, almost 3,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, of approximately 55,000 who had settled in Israel and are now facing prison, have chosen instead to depart to either Sudan, Eritrea or a third African country — namely, Uganda or Rwanda.

From left: Feisel Adam, Hassan Rahima and Yeman Adam, Sudanese community organizers, met at their office in South Tel Aviv.

Abdulmalik Abdalla, a dimply 30-year-old who worked at hotels across Israel for the last few years, is on the Masalit tribe’s disappearance list. On Feb. 18, the day before he left for Sudan, he and his friends shared a bottle of whiskey and a giant platter of chicken wings in a closet-sized apartment in the run-down Neve Sha’anan neighborhood of South Tel Aviv. A cloth hanging over the room’s small window fluttered on an unusually warm winter breeze. Abdalla’s eyes watered some as he talked about how excited he was to see his family, from which he had been separated for more than a decade.

Abdalla still hasn’t gotten that chance. Sudanese security officials told a friend who came to meet Abdalla at the airport that Abdalla had been taken into custody.

No one has heard from Abdalla since he departed Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on Feb. 19.

“We’re hearing about hundreds of people being arrested” upon arrival to Sudan, said Rami Gudovitch, a longtime advocate for African refugees in Israel who also teaches philosophy at Haifa University and the Interdisciplinary Center. Gudovitch has been compiling data based on testimony from his hundreds of contacts in the refugee community; he estimates that a minimum of 500 asylum seekers who returned to Sudan from Israel are behind bars.

Seven of those Sudanese men, he said, are believed to be dead.

Hundreds of African asylum seekers waited outside an extension office for the Israeli Ministry of Interior, hoping to renew their visas, on March 4.

This botched African exodus from Israel is the result of a plan revealed by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar last August. According to Israeli news site, Sa’ar said in a government meeting that “a wide-scale deportation campaign will begin following the coming holidays,” starting with a period of “willing deportation” and ending with the mass cancellation of visas and forced expulsion.

Come December 2013, as promised, the plan entered its first stage, and the Ministry of Interior began offering $3,500 to any asylum seeker who agreed to relocate.

In accordance with United Nations guidelines, Israel is not forcibly deporting any Eritrean or Sudanese nationals back to their volatile home countries. At a press conference on March 4, Sa’ar stressed that “everyone who leaves, whether to his country of origin or a third country, leaves of his own free will.”

But according to dozens of asylum seekers who spoke to the Jewish Journal, the decision to depart to Sudan and Eritrea, as well as Uganda and Rwanda, is made under intense pressure.

“The fact that they’re taking the money and going back does not make them less of refugees,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Israel’s oldest nonprofit assisting the Africans. “It only means that the life here is so horrible that they will take the risk with the hope of finding another country that will protect them.”

Sudanese and Eritrean nationals staying in Israel face two options: indefinite detention at Holot, the remote desert prison, or life under constant fear of losing their visas (and therefore their livelihood). Thousands are turning in applications for asylum, but the Ministry of Interior has only reported three approvals. As reporter Michael Omer-Man pointed out in Israel’s liberal +972 Magazine, government authorities have provided asylum seekers “the most basic protection — against deportation to their home countries — but in all other ways treated them like infiltrators.”

Filmon Ghide, 20, was forced to sleep in South Tel Aviv's central Levinsky Park when the Ministry of Interior wouldn't renew his visa so he could work.

Since the Holot detention facility was unveiled in early December, around 3,500 asylum seekers, seemingly the ones who’ve been in Israel the longest, have been summoned to the prison without trial for the crime of illegally crossing the border.

Food and medicine at the prison are severely lacking, as evidenced by cellphone photos snapped by prisoners inside. “If we complain, [prison staffers] tell us, 'Then why don't you go home?’ ” Muhamad Musa, formerly a jewelry shop owner in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, told the Journal. Other prisoners said jail officials constantly pressure them to accept the government’s offer of $3,500 and a flight out.

Life isn’t much easier for those who remain in the city. On a recent Tuesday, what looked to be about 800 Africans, including women and children, crowded around the gates to a newly opened Ministry of Interior building especially for African migrants. The offices, tucked between warehouses and office buildings on a hidden alley in North Tel Aviv, opened just last week — an alternative to the much more visible Ministry of Interior building nearby, situated at a major intersection across from the Azrieli Center mall.

“Why did they change places? Because there are 700 people in line, and everybody will pass by and see the problem,” said Eritrean asylum seeker Filmon Ghide. (The ministry did not respond to a request for comment.)

“They are kicking me like a soccer ball from office to office,” he said.

Approximately 1,000 asylum seekers protested outside the Holot detention facility for “illegal infiltrators” in the Israeli desert on Feb. 17.

On that Tuesday, a cluster of asylum seekers quickly formed around a reporter who had come to check out the new location. “Every day I come here [to the Ministry of Interior]. I am not yet sleeping here, but some are,” said Fitsum Tesfasilase, 36, who has been attempting — unsuccessfully — to renew his visa for more than a month. “We can’t make our rent. We can’t feed ourselves. Before, I worked cleaning the streets — black work. But now I can’t support my wife and my child.” Because Tesfasilase escaped forced, indefinite military service in Eritrea after 13 years as a soldier, he said he would likely face life in prison, or worse, if he returned to Eritrea.

Semere Abraham, 24, another Eritrean waiting in the line-turned-mob, said that a close friend of his named Merhawe had accepted Israel’s offer to fly to Uganda about two weeks ago. However, he said, the plan went terribly wrong: Merhawe was detained at the Uganda airport, flown to Egypt, detained again, and then sent against his wishes to Eritrea. “I was calling to his house [in Eritrea], and his mother was crying,” Abraham said. “He’s in the prison now.”

Last summer, Israeli officials announced that Uganda had agreed to accept some of Israel’s unwanted Africans. Ugandan officials, however, quickly denied the deal — and have denied it ever since. Musa Ecweru, who heads refugee affairs at Uganda’s Ministry for Relief and Disaster Preparedness, told the Journal: “I have not been formally informed of this. I just heard in the news.”

Ecweru added: “I don’t know why they would even want to come here and not relocate to Eritrea.”

And Yolande Makolo, a spokeswoman in Rwanda’s Office of the President, said: “That’s really interesting. This is the first I’m hearing of this. Let me get back to you.” Makolo did not respond to multiple attempts to follow up.

Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority has become equally tight-lipped. “The only thing we can confirm is that there are some of them who are flying to another country and not their homeland,” a spokeswoman said via e-mail.

A waiting room on the seventh floor of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority building in South Tel Aviv is plastered with dozens of signs that say “No Exit Through Window.”

However, according to multiple Eritrean and Sudanese men who have been trying to renew their visas at the Israeli Ministry of Interior, government staffers are telling them that they have the option to be relocated not only to Uganda but also to next-door Rwanda.

This is incredibly distressing, said Dismas Nkunda of the International Refugee Rights Initiative — not to mention, he said, “absolutely illegal by both Israel” and the other countries.

Uganda and Rwanda are still dealing with their own refugee crises, and without a formal relocation overseen by the United Nations, according to Nkunda and other human-rights experts, there is no guarantee that Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers will receive the protection they need.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has yet to intervene. However, a UNHCR spokesman issued a statement to the Journal demanding that any state, including Israel, “refrain from any future measure that could directly or indirectly lead to the return of a person to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened.”

In a series of interviews, Eritrean asylum seeker Ghide, 20, said five of his friends received $3,500 each from the Israeli government to board a plane to Rwanda in the past three weeks. Over the phone from Rwanda, his friends now tell him that around 30 asylum seekers from Israel are in the Central African country; in addition, according to Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a plane carrying more of them to Rwanda departed Tuesday night.

Ghide said he would never accept the deal. His own father has been imprisoned for years under the current dictator, Isaias Afewerki, for worshipping and preaching as a Protestant Christian, and he’s afraid that Eritrean government would kidnap him from Uganda or Rwanda and shut him, too, in an underground jail. Nevertheless, the young Eritrean said, he understands his friends’ decision.

“Jail in your own country can be better than living in another country as a prisoner,” he said, “because maybe you will find a guard or something to send a message to your mother or father. And after six or seven years, maybe they will release you.”

Hundreds of African asylum seekers waited outside an extension office for the Israeli Ministry of Interior, hoping to renew their visas, on March 4.

Ghide said his friends in Rwanda also told him by phone that an anonymous official met them at the airport and gave them money to stay at a hotel for a couple of nights. But now they’re panicking, he said, because “they cannot get work and nobody is helping them. They are so worried about it.”

Another group of seven asylum seekers from Sudan spoke to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz from Uganda after leaving Israel in mid-February.

NGOs are having trouble keeping up with this chaotic scattering of Israel’s asylum seekers across Africa. Rozen at Hotline for Refugees and Migrants said she received information from the UNHCR that one Eritrean man whom Israel tried to relocate to Rwanda was immediately put on a plane to Eritrea by Rwandan authorities.

“There are a lot of weird stories — there’s one story about a group that ended up finding themselves in Chad,” said Gudovitch. The Israeli activist is scrambling to compile a comprehensive list of the departed by early April, when the Supreme Court of Israel is set to review a petition against the law allowing indefinite detention at Holot.

According to those tracking the departures, Eritrea has seen the fewest voluntary returns. Although the nation is not as globally infamous as, say, Darfur, asylum seekers say life under authoritarian rule has become intolerable. In December 2010, the U.S. ambassador to Asmara, Eritrea’s capital city, wrote in a leaked embassy cable: “Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea's prisons are overflowing, and the country's unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant.” Every year since 2007, Eritrea has placed dead last on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index; the organization writes that “the few journalists who dare to criticize the regime are thrown in prison.” Swedish-Eritrean journalist Meron Estefanos has called it “the North Korea of Africa.”

Meanwhile, Israeli government officials have boasted about the thousands of 2014 departures without acknowledging the dangers facing refugees. “Every week now, there are fewer infiltrators in Israel,” Sa’ar announced at his March 4 press conference.

Filmon Ghide, far right, helped translate for fellow Eritrean asylum seeker Fitsum Tesfasilase outside Tel Aviv's new visa office. “I was forced to serve in the military for 13 years as a slave, and I ran away in the night,” Tesfasilase said in his native language of Tegrinyia.

Massive asylum-seeker rallies against Sa’ar’s policies in January and February have dwindled in recent weeks. “The government of Israel has done a tremendous job convincing the Israeli public that all these people are work infiltrators, and that we should keep them away as quickly as possible,” said Rozen with Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “This is actually our main problem.”

A skit staged by three asylum seekers in Holot’s front parking lot on March 8, with two busloads of Tel Aviv visitors as audience, poked fun at Israel’s deportation tactics. One Sudanese actor, pretending to be an Israeli government worker, whispered temptations into community leader Anwar Suliman’s ear — telling him how peaceful Sudan had become and how great it would be to see his family. After a few minutes of these sweet lies, to wild laughter, Suliman scribbled his signature onto the voluntary return form and threw his hands up in defeat.

In reality, Sudan is still incredibly dangerous, said 38-year-old Hassan Rahima, a widely respected community leader and head of the Organization of Sudanese Refugees in Israel, an umbrella organization for various tribal groups. “I cannot go back. I lost before my whole family: I was in my area in the Nuba Mountains, and my mother, my brother and my sister were all killed in front of my eyes. I was in jail for three months. Then the boss of the jail took me to where he lived and kept me as his slave for three years. I was cleaning the house and washing the clothes. I brought water to the house from the river on my back. All the time, they sent me to get water.”

The government that would meet him at the Khartoum International Airport, Rahima said, “is the same government who committed these crimes in the Nuba Mountains.”

No easy way out for African migrants in Israeli desert detention

A compound of one-story buildings deep in the southern Israeli desert is now home to some 400 African migrants who face the prospect of being held in custody indefinitely.

The detainees in what the authorities call an “open” detention centre are allowed to leave for a few hours each day, but given its remote location near the Egyptian frontier, travel is impractical.

Israel opened the Holot complex in December after its Supreme Court stopped the practice of jailing illegal migrants for up to three years in regular prisons.

But in what the migrants call a cruel twist and rights groups say is a rights violation, a law passed the same month allows the migrants to be detained indefinitely, pending the resolution of their requests to stay in Israel.

“I went to renew my visa, and suddenly I wound up here. This is terrible,” said Eritrean Hagos Fdwi, 30, who worked in a restaurant in Tel Aviv.

More than 50,000 Africans – mainly Sudanese and Eritreans – have crossed into Israel surreptitiously through a once-porous, and now fenced, Egyptian border in the past eight years.

Many say they seek asylum from war-torn homelands, but Israel dismisses most as illegal job seekers although some have been granted limited visas.

Authorities complain of heightened social tensions in more impoverished parts of Tel Aviv where Africans settle. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the influx threatens Israel's Jewish character and wants the majority of migrants removed.

But rather than conduct outright deportations, Israel is trying to coax migrants to return home voluntarily – including offering a cash incentive – or persuade third countries to accept them.

So far, relatively few have taken the money, though Israeli officials say 2,000 left in 2013, up from a reported 400 or so in 2012. No third-country safe havens have been established.

Daniel Solomon, an Interior Ministry legal adviser, said Holot was established to get migrants off the streets and out of the job market.

“Legally people can be held at the open facility indefinitely, but the idea is for it to be a transit (point) for migrants before they go back home or to a third country,” he told reporters in January.

Journalists have not been permitted to enter the compound, but Reuters was able to interview a dozen or so detainees who ventured outside its gates.

Some said they were bused from Tel Aviv or surrounding areas after visiting the visa office, arriving at the centre with just the clothing on their backs.

Many said they do not take the opportunity to leave the facility each day. The closest town, Beersheba, is about an hour's drive away, and detainees are required to check in every few hours. Failure to do so could mean transfer to a conventional prison.

There were few complaints about accommodations, said to include television and three meals a day, with 10 men sleeping in an amply sized room. No women or children are being held.


Holot has a capacity to hold more than 3,000 inmates and human rights groups say at least 2,000 more migrants have received summonses to report there by next month.

The rights groups argue that many of the migrants are worthy of political asylum, citing unrest and oppression in their homelands, and have petitioned the Supreme Court against the law.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Israel, Walpurga Englbrecht, said unlimited incarceration at Holot did not “comply with international human rights norms.”

“What is more disturbing is there are no release grounds from Holot, the only way to get out is signing up for voluntary departure,” Englbrecht told Reuters.

Anger over the facility has triggered a series of protests by migrants in the past month, including a march to Israel's parliament and crowded vigils in Tel Aviv.

When a Reuters TV crew showed up outside the facility recently, some of the detainees held up signs calling for asylum. Three detainees walking down the road crossed their wrists over their heads as if they were handcuffed.

Detainees spoke to Reuters mainly of boredom and frustration at seeing no quick way out of their predicament. Two said they had been separated from their wives and children, although Israel said it avoids sending men with families to the facility.

Solomon Hagos, 25, said he has been in detention in Israel since he entered illegally 18 months ago. He said he fled an Eritrean military prison in 2012 and was gang-raped over several days by three men who held him captive in Egypt's Sinai desert before he crossed into Israel.

“My life is nothing but a prison,” said Hagos, whose asylum petition was rejected last month.

Robel Yohanns, 23, of Eritrea, was more hopeful than most of the detainees, however.

“I'm just going to sit patiently and wait for them to change the law, again,” he said.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall

New Israeli detention center falls flat

This story originally appeared on

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.”