Asylum Seekers' Detention Facility in Southern Israel Expected to Reach Full Capacity in Weeks

Some 2,500 Eritreans and Sudanese now jailed at Holot, which can hold 3,360, and hundreds more expected.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The number of asylum seekers held at the open detention facility in Holot has reached an all-time high, with some 2,500 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals being held there.

Hundreds of others are expected to be sent there in the coming weeks, thereby bringing the facility to full capacity – 3,360 people – for the first time since it opened two years ago.

Until now, Holot has never held more than 2,200 people, and until last month, only two of its three wings were in use.

The upsurge follows a High Court of Justice ruling in August that initially depleted Holot’s population. The ruling overturned a law allowing asylum seekers to be kept at Holot for 20 months and ordered the immediate release of all those who had been there more than a year. As a result, 1,178 people were released, and only 587 were left at Holot.

But in response to that ruling, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority began issuing summons to Holot at a much faster pace and abolished criteria that had previously exempted more recent asylum seekers from being sent there. Now, almost any Eritrean or Sudanese national can be sent to Holot.

In recent months, almost all asylum seekers who aren’t exempt by law (like women and children) have received summons to Holot, though not many have arrived. Many have decided to leave Israel instead, while others have opted to simply continue their normal lives and hope PIBA inspectors don’t find them. By law, an asylum seeker who doesn’t report to Holot after being summoned can be to Saharonim Prison.

PIBA declined to say how many asylum seekers had been summoned to Holot or how many had arrived. The Israel Prison Service said there are currently 880 inmates at Saharonim, all African asylum seekers.

PIBA did say, however, that November saw more “voluntary departures” by asylum seekers than any previous month this year, with 507 people leaving. That brings the total for the first 11 months of 2015 to 2,920 – less than half the number of asylum seekers who left in the same period last year. 

There are currently some 44,000 asylum seekers in Israel, of whom 73 percent are from Eritrea, 19 percent from Sudan and seven percent from other African countries. Forty new asylum seekers entered Israel in November, about the same as in previous months, bringing the total for the year to 216 – almost all from Sudan. 

Holot, located near the Egyptian border, is run by the prison service, though PIBA decides whom to send there. It was built exclusively for Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, since Israel doesn’t deport people to those countries.

Residents aren’t allowed to work; instead, the state provides their meals and gives them a monthly allowance of 480 shekels ($125). Residents must stay at the facility from 10 P.M. until 6 A.M. and attend one daily headcount; otherwise, they can leave during the day. The facility sleeps 10 people to a room.

Under a draft bill published by the Interior Ministry on Sunday, which is designed to replace the provisions overturned by the High Court in August, asylum seekers already in the country will be sent to Holot for a year, but the interior minister will be entitled to extend this period to 18 months “for special reasons.” Asylum seekers who enter after the bill becomes law will be held at Holot for 18 months. This proposal seems to contradict the guidance given by the court in its August ruling, which deemed the existing 20-month detention period excessive and ordered the release of everyone held at Holot for a year or longer.