African Migrants Take to the Streets to Demand Israel Consider Asylum Requests

Human rights groups assert open detention center no different from jail. 'I didn't come for $3,500," says one refugee about government exit grant.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

An estimated 1,000 Sudanese and Eritrean migrants, along with Israeli human rights activists, marched through the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday night to urge the government to consider the asylum requests of migrants from Africa and release the approximately 3,000 held in Israeli custody.

“I looked into the eyes of the people here with me – everyone has had enough,” said Najmaldin, a Sudanese migrant who took part in the rally and did not want to give his last name. “People want their asylum requests looked into. If someone’s a refugee he should stay here; if someone’s not a refugee he should go back to Africa.”

“We demand a solution from the Israeli government for the people who are currently in prison and for us,” he said. “The people who are in Saharonim and in south Tel Aviv – it’s the same story, the same problems.”

Human rights groups say an estimated 3,000 of the 50,000 asylum seekers in Israel are locked up in the Saharonim detention center in the Negev. The government moved 480 of them to Holot, a nearby open detention facility, after the Knesset approved a legal amendment earlier this month authorizing the open center, where migrants are locked in only at night.

Though they are technically free to leave the premises during the day, they have to be present for roll call three times a day, a restriction meant to prevent them from finding jobs outside the facility. Last week hundreds of migrants marched out of the open center in protest, but were ultimately taken back into custody.

On Saturday, demonstrators marched from Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv, where many migrants live, to Independence Hall on swanky Rothschild Boulevard. In an unplanned continuation of the protest, the demonstrators kept marching through Tel Aviv and blocked off some of the city’s roads, waving signs reading “Liberty” and “Not another jail.”

Human rights groups have said there is no real difference between the open detention center and a jail. Several of the groups have filed a High Court petition against the law that authorizes the Holot center, as well as allowing the state to hold migrants for up to a year without trial, down from three years.

Police detained two migrants for questioning Saturday on suspicion of attacking a police officer and disturbing the peace, and used pepper spray in an effort to disperse the rally.

Million, an Eritrean migrant who took part in the rally, said race was a major factor in the Israeli government’s treatment of the asylum seekers.

“The Israelis are white, the Africans are black,” he said. “The blood is the same blood. But the government of Israel, a democratic state, is not acting in a democratic manner and is putting the blacks in jail.”

Nazer said Israeli efforts to sway migrants like him to go back to Sudan or to neighboring Eritrea, by offering grants to those who leave the country, would not succeed. The cabinet recently agreed to more than double the amount offered, bringing the grant to $3,500.

“I didn’t come here for $3,500,” said Nazer. “I came here because I’m a refugee. The State of Israel wants to send us back to Sudan and Eritrea. How can we go back? There’s a war there.”

African migrants demonstrating at Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park on Saturday night.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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