Asylum-seekers Released From Holot to Make Room for New Arrivals

Detention facility reached full capacity last week, and rather than cancel new summonses, state is releasing asylum-seekers who have spent more than nine months there.

AP/Tsafrir Abayov

The Population and Immigration Administration has begun to release from the Holot detention facility in the Negev asylum-seekers who have been held there for more than nine months, so as to make way for new arrivals, Haaretz has learned.

Last week, the center reached full capacity for the first time since it opened two years ago, and currently holds 3,360 asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan.

The Israel Prison Service, which runs Holot, informed the Population and Immigration Administration that with no more empty beds, the facility could not take in any more asylum-seekers. Not wishing to cancel summonses to Holot, the administration decided to release the most long-standing detainees, even if they had not been held there for the full year allowed by a High Court of Justice ruling on the matter.

The first group was apparently released on Wednesday. Those who were released were not given any explanation as to why their period of detention was cut short. Others who have been there for more than nine months were informed this week that they would soon be released, but for now they remain in Holot.

Ilan Assayag

The number of people reporting to Holot recently has exceeded the number of those being released, and so only some have been brought into the facility, with others being issued a temporary residency permit. It is unclear by which criteria, if any, the administration decided who is required to stay in Holot and who can have their permit renewed. Recently, the administration has repeatedly declined to respond to questions regarding the Holot facility, and Wednesday was no exception.

The administration’s decision to release the longest-standing detainees in order to make room for new arrivals is already being subjected to judicial oversight. After hearing about the releases, last week a Sudanese national held at the facility asked the Be’er Sheva Appeals Court to instruct the state to set clear and equal criteria for shortening the detention period at Holot. The asylum seeker, who suffers from poor health, argued that the administration needs to make its policy public and clarify who is eligible for early release from Holot. The court ordered the state to respond by the beginning of next week.

In August the High Court ruled that detention in Holot for one year and eight months was disproportionate, and set a limit of one year instead. The court instructed the Knesset to take action by mid-February to significantly reduce the time limit for detention in Holot. Despite the court ruling, Interior Ministry officials, with the backing of outgoing minister Silvan Shalom, sought to advance a new amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law that would allow for asylum-seekers to be held at Holot for up to a year and a half under certain circumstances.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein opposed any deviation from the limits set by the High Court and warned that the new version of the law being promoted by the Interior Ministry could be struck down again by the court. The law was due to come up before the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on the day that Shalom announced his retirement from politics, and since then, in the absence of an interior minister, it has not gone any further.

The early release of asylum-seekers from Holot goes against the Interior Ministry’s frequent argument that only lengthy detention will prove to be an effective deterrent and incentive for voluntary departure. Although the court ordered the administration to exercise its judgment on a case-by-case basis when issuing summonses to Holot, all the asylum-seekers who have been sent there were ordered to remain there for one year. No one was assigned to detention for a shorter period. Only in a very few and exceptional cases, usually in wake of legal proceedings, were any asylum-seekers released from Holot before completing the maximum detention period.

A few days before Holot became completely filled, the Population and Immigration Administration stopped issuing summonses to the facility. The administration also renewed the permits of people who reported for a hearing prior to being sent to Holot.

As reported by Haaretz, government ministries are pushing a plan to enlarge Holot, but no decisions on this have been made yet. The plan drawn up by the Defense Ministry prior to its construction includes the possibility of expanding the facility to a capacity of 11,000. If a decision is made to expand Holot or to build another facility, it will take time for such a plan to be implemented.