The government is to release 138 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who were being held at the Holot Detention Center in southern Israel. The decision was made Thursday following a petition filed at the High Court of Justice by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.
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In its response to the petition, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority told the court that 138 inmates will be released by next Tuesday, and they will be issued with new temporary residence permits, similar to the ones held by most other citizens of Eritrea and Sudan living in Israel. They have been detained in Holot since it opened in December 2013.
A further 50 asylum seekers did not sign a power of attorney and thus were not included in the petition. Representing the state, attorneys Yochi Gnessin and Ran Rosenberg said this group would not be released, even though their circumstances were similar to those of the petitioners.
The asylum seekers, represented by attorneys Carmel Pomerantz and Asaf Weitzen, were first held under the third amendment to the anti-infiltration law, which was struck down by the courts in September 2013. Despite the court’s instruction to release these inmates, the state detained them for a further three months. They were then transferred from Saharonim Prison to the newly opened Holot detention center last December. Even when the fourth amendment to the law was deemed illegal in September 2014, these inmates were still not released.
A few days after their transfer to Holot last winter, most of the asylum seekers took part in a protest march headed for Jerusalem. They were arrested and reimprisoned. A month later, during huge rallies held in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, many asylum seekers launched hunger strikes.
The group transferred to Holot initially consisted of 500 asylum seekers, but there are now fewer than 200 left in Israel, since many of them have left Israel in a controversial policy known as “voluntary return.”
All the asylum seekers in the petition have been locked up since their arrival in Israel. They all filed claims seeking asylum, with some of these being submitted up to two years ago. Most never received an answer, while some claims were rejected.
The petition quoted passages from the High Court rulings that disqualified the earlier amendments, which emphasized the serious infringements on the petitioners’ rights and the injustice of their incarceration. “There can be no dispute over the fact that incarceration for 12 long months, added to by a year in a detention center, as was carried out under the prevailing law, is extremely unreasonable and disproportionate. It is unthinkable that this court has repeatedly struck down this law, yet the petitioners are still imprisoned,” said the most recent ruling.
“We welcome the decision to release these detainees after more than two years, but we regret the lost time and the need for legal action in order to bring these people some belated measure of justice” said attorneys Pomerantz and Weitzen. “We hope this decision indicates that the authorities now understand the High Court rulings, which emphasize that in Israel one cannot imprison someone for no purpose and without trial when it is not possible to legally remove them.”
“For a long time I’ve seen so many people set free – I didn’t think my day would come too,” said Yousef Zakaria, an asylum seeker from Darfur and one of the inmates to be released. “I’m very happy, but still afraid about what will happen to us, worried that we’ll end up in prison again. I hope I can live here peacefully – I’m still waiting for a response to my request for asylum, which I submitted two years ago.”