Israel Frees Over 1,000 African Asylum Seekers From Detention Facility

By Wednesday night, the Holot detention center will contain only 587 asylum seekers, but the state plans to house thousands more there in the coming months.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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An asylum seeker is released from Holot detention center, August 25, 2015.
An asylum seeker is released from Holot detention center, August 25, 2015. Credit: Ilan Assayag
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

The state began releasing 1,178 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers from the open detention facility in Holot on Tuesday, but most have no idea where they will go next.

About half will be released Tuesday and the other half on Wednesday, which is the last possible day for freeing them under to a High Court of Justice ruling issued on August 11.

Asylum seekers at the Holot detention center in the Negev.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

Thus by Wednesday night, Holot will contain only 587 asylum seekers, all of whom have been there for less than a year – the maximum period the court permitted. But over the coming months, the Interior Ministry plans to send thousands of additional asylum seekers there.

The interior minister has issued an order barring those released from Holot from living or working in either Tel Aviv or Eilat, the two cities with the largest concentrations of asylum seekers. But the government isn’t expected to give them any help in finding jobs or housing elsewhere.

Nor have the ministry and the Israel Prison Service, which runs Holot, organized any special transportation for them from the facility, which is located deep in the Negev. Thus most will simply take regular buses.

Asylum seekers board a bus in Tel Aviv that will take them to a Negev detention center.Credit: Moti Milrod

Moreover, most have very little money, aside from the allowance of 160 shekels ($41) that Holot residents receive every 10 days by law. Those slated to be freed this week received their allowance on Monday as usual.

Over the last few days, human rights activists have tried to find kibbutzim that would agree to host groups of asylum seekers temporarily, until they find permanent housing and employing. But these efforts bore no fruit, so those released will have to rely mainly on help from their fellow asylum seekers. The ones who used to live in Tel Aviv and Eilat are likely to have an especially hard time, since they can’t go back to the coastal cities.

“There are people who have nowhere to go,” said Anwar Suliman, an asylum seeker from Sudan’s Darfur region and one of the people who petitioned the High Court against the law enabling asylum seekers to be sent to Holot, resulting in the ruling that all those held there for a year or more must be freed.

“We’re trying to do something so people won’t have problems, so they won’t be in the street,” added Suliman, who has been at Holot for 18 months.

Tshuma Nega of Eritrea, another petitioner, has also been at Holot for 18 months. He said residents of the facility have mixed feelings today.

“People are happy that they’re leaving this prison, but they don’t know where to go,” he said. “Many people have friends in Tel Aviv and Eilat, and they could start over there, but now, they’ve closed off that possibility. It will be very hard for them to start over in other places. A few might know someone in other places, but most don’t. It seems to me that some people will go to Tel Aviv and Eilat in any case, because they don’t know what else to do.”

Nega lived and worked in Eilat for more than six years and had planned to return there until he learned the government had forbidden it. “I called the department head I worked for at the hotel, and he said ‘Fine, the minute you’re released you can return to working here.’ I was happy they agreed to take me back at the hotel where I worked, but I can’t go back there. I’m in the same situation as everyone is. I don’t yet know what I’ll do.”

Elisheva Milikowsky of Physicians for Human Rights said that in most cities, members of the asylum seeker community were organizing to help those about to be released, “but for those who used to live in Tel Aviv and Eilat, it’s more challenging.” She said some of those released will probably find jobs in hotels throughout the country, where they will also be able to live.

But the real solution, she said, was to give them work permits and access to health and welfare services, which would encourage them to disperse around the country instead of concentrating in areas like south Tel Aviv. “The government’s current policy makes things hard on the asylum seekers, but it also hurts the entire Israeli public,” Milikowsky said.

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