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Three Years Later, Israel Considers Detention Camp for Migrants a Huge Success

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African asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility in the Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“Until I have the option of deporting them, I’ll jail them in order to make their lives miserable,” then-Interior Minister Eli Yishai said in 2012 about Eritrean and Sudanese nationals in Israel. To a large extent, this statement encapsulates the purpose of the open detention facility at Holot, which was established under Yishai’s successor, Gideon Sa’ar.

Sa’ar was followed by Gilad Erdan, Silvan Shalom and Arye Dery, but none of them questioned the need for Holot’s existence. On the contrary, all considered expanding the facility – though so far that hasn’t happened.

In official briefs submitted in court, the state has stated that Holot is meant “to prevent infiltrators from settling in major cities.” But in less formal venues, ministers and high-level civil servants have declared a different goal: Getting as many Eritreans and Sudanese as possible to leave Israel.

The data shows that Holot has actually achieved that goal. Since it opened in December 2013, approximately 12,000 Eritreans and Sudanese have left Israel. That amounts to a quarter of all the Eritreans and Sudanese who were here in 2013.

Some returned to their own countries, others went to Uganda or Rwanda. A few managed to get to other Western countries and reunite with relatives there. But most left primarily because of Holot – either because they had already received orders to report there, or because they feared they would soon be ordered to do so.

The Holot detention center in southern Israel. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

So, from the government’s standpoint, Holot is a success story. It’s true that it cost a lot of money, but it has produced results. If, as the Interior Ministry hopes, the current pace continues, thousands of other asylum seekers will leave Israel in the coming years.

Everything the state has done in recent years is aimed at achieving that goal: giving exiting asylum seekers “departure grants” of $3,500 per person; paying for a one-way ticket from Israel to anywhere in the world; placing all kinds of obstacles before those seeking to renew their visas; refusing to give them work permits, let them join the national health insurance plan or receive other basic social benefits; and requiring them to deposit a fifth of their wages in a special fund that can be accessed only when they leave the country.

Moreover, the state almost automatically rejects asylum applications submitted by Eritreans, while it has simply ignored most applications by Sudanese, especially those from Sudan’s Darfur region.

Even the government understands there’s a not-insignificant group of people who won’t leave despite all the pressure it can exert – or, at the very least, won’t agree to go back to Africa. Nevertheless, it hasn’t proposed any real solutions for those who will continue to live here.

Some 37,000 Eritreans and Sudanese are still living in Israel, most of them in south Tel Aviv. So Holot clearly hasn’t achieved its official goal of preventing asylum seekers from dwelling in major cities, and friction between the asylum seekers and veteran residents of south Tel Aviv continues.

Asylum seekers gather outside Holot detention center, September 2014.Credit: Reuters

Only about 5 percent of asylum seekers are currently being held at Holot. If they don’t break down and agree to leave Israel, they’ll be released after a year and will once again be able to rent an apartment, find a job and rebuild their lives. And anyone who can endure a year in this isolated desert facility is apparently in no hurry to leave Israel.

So what will the government do if its best efforts haven’t managed to get an asylum seeker to leave? Keep trying. If pressure doesn’t work, it will try coercion.

The High Court of Justice is expected to rule soon on whether migrants who refuse to accept relocation to a third country can be detained indefinitely. This is the next major step, for which the government has high hopes.

But it has already been delayed for some 18 months due to the court petition, which was filed by human rights organizations. These groups argue that if asylum seekers are forced to leave, their lives will be endangered and their fundamental rights violated.

The state rejects these claims and hopes the court will give it a green light. If that happens, the state will no longer have any real need of Holot, because instead of sending asylum seekers there, it will simply be able to deport them.

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