From Frying Pan to Fire: Asylum Seekers Running Food Stands at Detention Center Arrested

This is the first time asylum seekers being held at Holot have been arrested and sent to jail.

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An African migrant prepares food outside the Holot detention center in Israel's southern Negev desert, September 22, 2014.
An African migrant prepares food outside the Holot detention center in Israel's southern Negev desert, September 22, 2014.Credit: Reuters

Twenty-two asylum seekers running stands outside the Holot detention center were arrested and jailed on Sunday by the Population and Immigration Authority. This is the first time asylum seekers being held at Holot have been arrested and sent to jail.

Over the past few months the Ramat Negev Regional Council has repeatedly demolished temporary structures put up by asylum seekers in the open area outside the Holot center. Most of the stands sell food and beverages.

Stands run by African asylum seekers outside Holot detention center.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The authorities did not demolish the stands this time; instead, they focused on the operators. The Population and Immigration Authority said that operating the stands violates the prohibition against asylum seekers held at Holot from working. According to the last amendment of the law on illegal entry to Israel, a person being held at Holot can be jailed for up to a month if caught working, and then gets returned to Holot.

The raid on the stands was carried out by immigration inspectors, police and representatives of the Tax Authority, the State Prosecutor’s Office, the Health Ministry and the Environmental Protection Ministry.

A statement issued by the southern district prosecutor’s office said that in recent months an illegal “market” has sprung up at Holot, with 45 stands for cooking and selling food and beverages, including alcoholic beverages, clothing and shoes, as well as billiard equipment and playing cards. The prosecution said “dozens of kilograms of meat and other food products were found in poor sanitary conditions – without refrigeration or supervision; pirate link-ups to gas lines and gas canisters scattered throughout the area without any supervision, which constitutes danger to public safety and to the residents of the center in particular.”

The meat and other products found to be unsuitable for consumption were destroyed and more than 1,000 bottles of alcohol were confiscated. The prosecution said that a few weeks ago, more than 80 people held at Holot reported food poisoning after eating at the stands.

African asylum seekers at Holot detention center in the Negev. Credit: Eli Hershkovitz

Omar, 25, from Darfur, who has been held at Holot for 10 months, said the inspectors went from stand to stand and asked to whom they belonged. “If you said, ‘Yes, I work here,’ they said put out your hands and they put handcuffs on. From there they took you to Saharonim,” he said, referring to a prison in the Negev initially set up to house asylum seekers.

“The food was good, it’s food people were cooking. There are also people with cars here and they said ‘we don’t want people with cars here.’”

According to Omar, the stands outside the isolated Holot facility help people held there pass the time. “It’s really important to us. Inside Holot there’s nothing to do. It’s boring inside. You sit outside, smoke a nargilah, you sit together and talk. The time passes. If you stay inside you’ll become psychologically sick. You’re alone, thinking all the time.”

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants said “complaints about the food stands at Holot reached the hotline from the day the facility opened. As long as the facility exists, the residents must be given proper conditions and allowed to bring in food they cook themselves, instead of being pushed to find solutions of their own for lack of choice. In addition, instead of continuing to invest resources and energy in making asylum seekers’ lives miserable, with a policy that helps no one, the government should use the money invested in the center for south Tel Aviv and other places where asylum seekers live. They should disperse the population by issuing proper work permits and check asylum seekers’ applications in keeping with global standards.”

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