African migrants outside the Ministry of the Interior, Tel Aviv, Dec. 28, 2013
African migrants outside the Ministry of the Interior, Tel Aviv, Dec. 28, 2013. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Holot detention center. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Population and Immigration Authority instructed 150 migrants from Eritrea and Sudan living in cities across Israel to report to the Holot detention center in the Negev. The facility currently houses only men but, despite assurances given by the Interior Ministry that men with families would not be included in the summoned group, several men with wives and children said they had been ordered to show up. Other migrants said that officials did not tell them about the facility and its conditions, and only told them that they have a month before they must leave the country. Migrants from Eritrea said that the written explanations in the Tigrinya language were unclear.

Last week the authority announced that migrants would no longer be able to get services in all of its offices. Service would only be given at offices in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Be’er Sheva and Petah Tikva on Sundays and Tuesdays and in Eilat on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, during specified hours. Hundreds of migrants waited for many hours on Sunday to renew their visas. Many waited in the cold outside Tel Aviv’s government center. Even though it was announced that service would only be given between 4 P.M. and 6:30 P.M., the offices remained open late into the evening.

One 35-year old Eritrean man waited there from noon, coming out at 5:30 P.M. looking worried. In his hands was a document requiring him to appear at Holot within 30 days. “At the Interior Ministry I was told to collect my things and leave the country within that period,” he says. “After a month it’s Eritrea, I was told. I told them I have a wife and two children and that I don’t want to go.” He says he told the official he wouldn’t go to Holot since he couldn’t leave his wife and children, and the official told him in that case he would be taken there by force.

Three weeks ago the Knesset approved a new amendment to the Infiltration Law, which allows the authorities to imprison illegally-arrived migrants for up to a year without trial. The amendment also called for erection of a new detention facility, open during the day and closed at night. The Holot facility, near Ketziot prison in the Negev, opened a few days later, and 483 migrants were moved there from the adjacent Saharonim prison. The detainees are forbidden to find work and must show up for roll calls morning, noon and evening. The state has committed itself to providing them a place to sleep, food, and health and welfare services.

In the next days, two protest marches left from Holot, ending in the migrants’ arrest, which were carried out with much force by inspectors from the immigration aority. Last Thursday 217 detainees were summoned to Holot, while 266 others, most of whom had participated in the marches, were returned to Saharonim for breaking the new regulations.

Last week the Population and Immigration Authority intensified its efforts to enforce the law, with arrests of migrants living in urban areas. Those without visas or who had left the Holot detention center were sent to Saharonim prison. The authority said it is “improving services for those infiltrators who are trying to renew their visas, devoting many hours and days to this effort, in order to ease the pressure at our offices. Services are provided by employees who speak Arabic or Tigrinya, in order to help those who don’t speak Hebrew or English.

“The authority has started issuing summonses to infiltrators residing in city centers, calling on them to show up at the open Holot facility. Today (Sunday) we issued 150 such summonses. The written instructions to report at Holot are also given in Arabic and Tigrinya. At this point, men with families are not called on. This is checked before the summons is issued.”