About 300 African refugees and asylum seekers demonstrated in front of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on Thursday, demanding the end to internment in a Negev detention facility and expulsion to other African countries.
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Over 10,000 asylum seekers – mainly Sudanese and Eritreans – have been held at the Holot facility since it opened three years ago, with the state legally allowed to hold them there for a maximum of 12 months.
Although international law prohibits asylum seekers from being sent back to their homeland if it is a war zone or if it endangers their lives, Israel has sought to strike deals with other African nations (so-called “third countries”) to take in some of them.
In a letter addressed to the Supreme Court justices, the organizers of the protest called the “third country” policy coercive, noting that “asylum seekers who left Israel were imprisoned or arrested on their arrival. Some of them lost their lives and fell into the hands of Islamic State, and others lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea.
“Even when they seemingly receive a visa to Rwanda, it is not a genuine visa, only a temporary tourist visa – and from there they are forced to be smuggled to Uganda,” it added. “This policy is cruel, illegal and unacceptable. We should not be imprisoned or thrown to other countries in Africa that are not ours and don’t accept us.”
The letter asked the Supreme Court justices “to rule against this cruel policy, and ask that our requests for asylum be examined in a proper, just and transparent manner. We are not asking for citizenship or permanent residency. All we are asking is that our requests for asylum be heard, and that we will be able to stay here in peace until it is safe for us to return.”
According to the nonprofit Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, between 2009 and August 2013, Israel recognized only 0.15 percent of asylum seekers as refugees.
Reuven Abergel, a founder of the Israeli Black Panther movement which fought for the rights of Jews originally from the Middle East and North Africa, was also in attendance at the Jerusalem protest.
“You came here exactly like those Jews after World War II, who asked for a haven, a roof over their heads, a home for themselves,” he told the demonstrators.
“You didn’t set out on a trip around the world, you’re here against your will. I’m here to tell you that there are people here who feel your pain and know what you need. The State of Israel should be ashamed of the way in which it treats you. The government must release the refugees, give them a place within Israeli society. We were also once refugees.”