Israel to Examine Plans for Expanding Detention Facility for Asylum Seekers

Holot, which houses over 3,000 African asylum seekers, is expected to be full within weeks; Saharonim Prison nearing full capacity, too.

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

The Holot detention facility for African asylum seekers is almost at full capacity, according to the Public Security Ministry director general, who has called for examination of the possibility of building more such facilities.

Haaretz has learned that Director General Rotem Peleg recently asked the Prime Minister’s Office to urgently convene an inter-ministerial committee to prepare for the eventuality of no more room at Holot. He said that Saharonim Prison, where asylum-seekers who entered Israel more recently via the Egyptian border are sent, is also about to reach full capacity.

Holot, in the Negev, can hold approximately 3,360 people, and there are now 3,050 inmates there, from Eritrea and Sudan. This is the highest occupancy since Holot opened two years ago. In keeping with instructions from the Population and Immigration Authority, hundreds of asylum seekers report to Holot every month.

Holot is expected to be completely full by the end of the month. If the government decides that Holot is not big enough, it can either expand the existing facility or open a new one. Expanding Holot will not require special planning procedures because the national master plan under which its construction is covered allows for its expansion.

Opening a new center is more complicated because of the planning it will require.

Less than half the area approved for the facility has been used and according to the plan for the compound, it can be expanded to hold 11,000 people.

The main difficulty in expanding the facility is the limited infrastructure in that area of the Negev, which is sparsely populated. The current infrastructure, especially sewage, will not be able to handle that number of people.

Holot is intended to house men from Eritrea and Sudan, whom Israel does not deport to their home countries. The inmates must be on site from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M. and report to be counted once a day. There are 10 men in each room. The state does not allow them to work and they are given food and a monthly allowance of 480 shekels.

The buildings at Holot are temporary structures, but the cost of building and operations is high. In addition to rooms, each of which has five bunk beds, cabinets, a toilet, shower and an air conditioner, there is a dining hall, classrooms and a clinic. Expansion will require not only new living quarters, but more furniture and equipment, supplies and personnel.

There are currently 910 Africans at Saharonim prison, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan. Saharonim, which is intended only for Africans, has a capacity of 1,000 inmates. Every month, dozens of asylum seekers cross into Israel from Egypt and are sent straight to Saharonim and held there for three months. While Holot is considered a unique facility, alternatives can be found for Saharonim when it becomes full.

The issue of expanding Holot has come up a few times since it was built. Former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar was the first to bring it up, in March 2014, only three months after it opened. Sa’ar told the Knesset Interior Committee at the time that he was “planning to hold talks on the matter with all the government officials to prepare ahead of time for this situation, so as to continue to reduce the number of infiltrators in the centers of cities.”

In another meeting of the Interior Committee, in October 2014, Sa’ar said that he had already begun planning to expand the facility. “It is essential to deal with infiltration. Without Holot you can’t prevent work,” he said, referring to the government policy of not allowing the asylum seekers to work. “Work is the economic motive behind the phenomenon of infiltration,” Sa’ar added.

There are currently about 44,000 asylum seekers in Israel, about 73 percent from Eritrea, 19 percent from Sudan, 7 percent from other African countries and 1 percent from elsewhere.

The Israel Prison Service responded that in coordination with the Population and Immigration Authority it is prepared to receive new inmates up to full capacity at Saharonim and Holot. “If their number exceeds the number of places, the issue will be brought for a decision to the relevant authorities.”