Israel Begins Expelling Asylum Seekers From Holot Detention Facility

Israel Prison Service bars detainees from bringing application forms for asylum requests into the compound

Asylum seekers board a bus to leave Holot detention facility in Israel's Negev desert, March 5, 2018.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

As the Israel Prison Service on Monday began clearing asylum seekers out of the Holot detention facility ahead of its closure, authorities there forbade detainees to bring application forms for asylum requests into the compound.

Ataklti Michael, an asylum-seeker from Eritrea who wanted to bring such forms to his fellow detainees, was reprimanded by a prison guard and threatened with sanctions, including a fine.

In a recording of the conversation obtained by Haaretz, the guard says, “You brought a quantity of documents from outside to sign people up. Have you turned into a lawyer or what? Explain to me what your role is.”

When Michael explained he got the forms from a human rights organization, the guard asked him which one it was, and added, “It is forbidden to bring this into the facility because it will make me a disturbance.”

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Last month the Justice Ministry’s immigration tribunal rejected the Population and Border Authority’s position regarding thousands of asylum requests from Eritrean nationals, ruling that deserting the Eritrean army – which keeps soldiers in the army indefinitely – could indeed be sufficient grounds for asylum, and ordering the government to regulate the status of such deserters. Since that ruling was handed down, Eritrean asylum seekers whose applications had been rejected out of hand on grounds that army desertion was not automatic grounds for asylum are seeking to reopen their cases. Many of these Eritreans live in Holot.

A few weeks ago a number of asylum seekers in Holot sought to bring in 600 copies of the application forms so they could be distributed and residents be informed of the court ruling and seek to resubmit their requests. But the Prison Service did not allow the package of forms into the facility. In the end, residents who knew that someone was outside the facility with the forms were permitted to go out and take one – but only one. Most of the forms never made it into the center.

According to attorney Sapir Slutzker-Amran, director of the public hotline for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, who has contacted the prison service on this issue, the ban on legal documents is not consistent with the right to bring items into the facility, a right that was recognized by the High Court of Justice in June 2017, which ruled, “Any [item] is permitted unless it is expressly forbidden.”

“The forms that the residents sought to bring in are very important in terms of informing the residents about the court’s ruling and how to pursue their rights, and it’s possible that they could even help them fight the government’s plan to imprison them indefinitely or forcibly deport them to Rwanda,” said Slutzker-Amran. “By prohibiting the entry of the forms the prison service is acting, in violation of the law, to sabotage the possibility that the refugees will get the international protection they are entitled to by law.

“That being the case, we will ask that the Prison Service staff be instructed immediately to let the forms in and act to prevent a repeat of similar incidents. We will also ask that no sanctions, such as fines, be issued for bringing in any document or item that has not been expressly forbidden,” she said.

Haaretz has also learned that in recent weeks, asylum seekers wearing T-shirts with the slogan “No to deportation” were forbidden to enter the facility with them, and residents who had painted “Freedom” or “No to deportation” on their faces were made to wipe off the words.

Attorney Nimrod Avigal of HIAS Israel, the organization that provided the forms to the asylum seekers, explained, “Thousands of asylum requests by Eritreans were rejected on the basis of an erroneous interpretation of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and by ignoring the risks posed to them in their own country. These rejections were the basis for branding them ‘work migrants,’ for their detention and now their deportation.

“Following the court ruling that established that anyone who deserted the Eritrean army could indeed be considered a refugee, these asylum requests should have automatically been reevaluated. The fact that not only is the authority not helping these people held in Holot ask for their requests to be reexamined, but is itself undermining their right to do so, is sad and disturbing. We call on the authority to cancel the fines imposed and to increase the activity of the asylum request processing unit in Holot and outside it.”

On Monday, some 50 detainees were released from the facility. The Prison Service will be releasing the asylum seekers held there gradually, completing the release by March 15, according to a cabinet resolution.

Holot has about 640 inmates, all men from Eritrea and Sudan. On Tuesday, another 100 are expected to be let out.

Holot was erected four years ago at a cost of 320 million shekels to house illegal migrants from Africa, specifically Eritreans and Sudanese in flight from danger in their homelands, mainly in the late 2000s.

Near the border with Egypt, Holot’s operation has run the state as much as a quarter-billion shekels ($72 million) more since its construction.

As Holot is “open,” the inmates are allowed to leave the prison grounds – which are in the middle of the Negev desert – but must sign in daily between 8 P.M. and 10 P.M.

Initially people would be held in the facility, which is surrounded by high wire fencing, without a time limit and had to sign in three times a day. Petitions to the High Court of Justice led the stay at the facility to be capped at a year; to register attendance only once a day; and to reduce crowding in the rooms, with each confined to six inmates rather than 10 at its height. Holot had 3,360 people. By now much of the facility is already standing empty.

In February, the asylum seekers in Holot declared a hunger strike to protest the imprisonment of seven Eritreans who refused to leave Israel. It was the first time asylum seekers have been jailed for refusing to leave. The seven were moved from Holot to a closed prison, Saharonim, for fear they would flee. Meanwhile there have been protests around the world at Israel’s policy of deporting the asylum seekers; it began sending them expulsion notices in February.