More than 300 African migrants refused to return to their cells in an Israeli detention center this weekend, saying they are being held illegally and demanding release.
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The 340 detainees – mostly from Sudan and Eritrea – barricaded themselves in the yard of the Saharonim detention center in the south of Israel this weekend. A special Israel Prison Service force, brought from outside the center, on Sunday morning returned them to their cells.
Most of the detainees were caught illegally crossing the Egyptian border into Israel. Prison service staff tried and failed to negotiate an agreement by which the detainees would return to their cells voluntarily. The detainees did not use violence.
The situation, which began when the detainees refused to return as normal to their cells, was resolved on Sunday when the prison service force entered the wing of the prison where the detainees were protesting, separated them from one another and took them back to their cells.
"The entry to the wing and the removal of the migrants from it has been completed," the prison service said afterward. "The migrants demonstrated passive resistance only, and as a result, only specific force was used to disperse them, and there was no use of methods for dispersal."
Saharonim houses some 2,000 African migrants, including 30 children. The facility is made up of a tent camp, temporary structures and permanent buildings, which were opened just a year ago for women and children.
Since June 2012, anyone caught infiltrating the Israeli border with Egypt is sent to the center in accordance with the Prevention of Infiltration Law, which allows detention in such cases for up to three years. The center's population also includes illegal migrants who have been there beyond their three-year detention periods or have been arrested for alleged crimes. Illegal migrants can be arrested in Israel without evidence.
Adi Lerner, the head of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, strongly criticized the state's handling of Saharonim.
"These are asylum seekers who have done the best they can to prepare a request for normalizing their status as refugees here in Israel, and the state drags out the time and does not deal with these requests," she said. "It does not matter what their identity is: Women, children, men, elderly and victims of torture – they are all detained under the Prevention of Infiltration Law, and the future is unknown."
African migrants do not know how long they will be detained for or why it is happening, according to Lerner.
"We meet people and sometimes witness the deterioration of their mental state," she said. "It is easy to understand how in such a situation the despair spreads among the asylum seekers in prison."