Rights Groups: Israel Coercing African Migrants to Leave

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African asylum seekers at Holot detention center in the Negev.
African asylum seekers at Holot detention center in the Negev. Credit: Eli Hershkovitz

The government has recently been stepping up pressure on asylum seekers held at the Holot open detention facility to agree to leave Israel, two human rights organization charged on Wednesday.

In a report on Holot, entitled “Managing despair,” the organizations detailed what they termed abuses of the asylum seekers’ rights and new restrictions imposed on them in recent months. The document, prepared by Physicians for Human Rights and the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, was published just a few days before the High Court of Justice is expected to rule on whether the law allowing asylum seekers to be detained at Holot is constitutional. The verdict is expected by next Monday.

According to Israel Prison Service data, some 2,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers are currently at Holot. Another 700 are being held at Saharonim, a closed detention facility. Both facilities are in the Negev desert.

Statistics from the Population, Immigration and Border Authority that were published by Haaretz earlier this week show that 3,035 out of 5,717, or 53 percent, of the African migrants who left Israel between December 2013, when Holot opened, and the end of August 2014 had either already been ordered to report to Holot or met the criteria for being sent there. Of those who left, 2,605 (86 percent) were Sudanese and 430 (14 percent) were Eritreans. Asylum seekers say the departures are continuing.

The report said that starting in July 2014, Immigration Authority officials began visiting Holot, sometimes in uniform and sometimes not, and advising residents to sign up for voluntary departure by the end of August, since after that, it would no longer be possible to go to the main destination countries, Uganda and Rwanda. Moreover, those who signed up by this date would be given a $3,500 “departure grant,” whereas after that, there would be no more money for grants, the officials said.

But the representatives failed to warn the inmates that nobody in the destination countries would take care of them once they arrived, the report charged.

The report noted that aid organizations had repeatedly tried and failed to make contact with most of the asylum seekers who agreed to leave. Of the few they did manage to contact, however, many had not remained in Uganda or Rwanda, but had instead continued on to other countries. Most had planned to do this all along, the report acknowledged. But others had hoped to find refuge in Uganda and Rwanda, yet instead found themselves compelled to leave when they realized they were there illegally without papers.

About half of all the asylum seekers in Holot have registered for voluntary departure, the report said.

The report also said that several detainees had been “fined” for various offenses by having sums deducted from the pocket money they are supposed to receive while at Holot – 16 shekels a day, or $4.40.

N., an asylum seeker from Sudan who reads Hebrew, told the authors that the notices distributed by Immigration Authority officials didn’t specify what these offenses were, and “most people didn’t understand what they had done or why they were being punished.”

Though the law does allow the director of Holot or his deputy to punish inmates for disciplinary infractions, the alleged culprits are supposed to be given a hearing first, the report noted.

Moreover, people who left Holot for 48 hours with the Immigration Authority’s permission said they didn’t receive their pocket money for the days they were absent.

The Immigration Authority said it was “acting in accordance with the law.” It also charged that “the timing of the report’s publication isn’t coincidental, but is meant to influence the court’s decision.”

The Israel Prison Service declined to respond to the report.

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