Israel Approves Plan to Send Asylum Seekers to Rwanda or Jail, Close Detention Center

Netanyahu says that after removing 20,000 'infiltrators' from Israel, it was time for the next stage, which he described as 'increased removal'

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
Asylum seekers outside the Holot detention center, December 8, 2016.
Asylum seekers outside the Holot detention center, December 8, 2016.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

The cabinet on Sunday unanimously approved the proposal by Interior Minister Arye Dery and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to close the Holot detention center in four months. At the same time, the government plans to begin deporting asylum seekers by telling them they will have to leave for Rwanda, otherwise they will be jailed for an indefinite period of time.

Until now, Israel has been pressuring Eritrean and Sudanese nationals to leave, but did not deport them. But the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority will shortly inform numerous asylum seekers that they will have to leave in accordance with new criteria to be formulate.

It hasn’t yet decided who will be the first to be targeted. Certain groups will be excluded at this stage, including women and children; people who have requested asylum but have yet to get a response; and those who have been victims of human trafficking.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the weekly cabinet meeting that after the construction of the border fence with Egypt and the removal of 20,000 “infiltrators” from Israel in recent years, it was time for the third stage, which he described as “increased removal.”

“This removal is made possible thanks to an international agreement I reached that allows us, of the 40,000 infiltrators that remain, to remove them without their consent,” Netanyahu said. “This is very important. It will allow us to empty the Holot facility later on and divert some of the large resources we are expending there toward inspectors and increased removal. That’s why this was a success, but our goal is to continue to remove more and more, to a more significant extent than we’ve removed [them] until now.”

The Holot facility, near the Nitzana crossing on the Egyptian border, was opened four years ago and cost 320 million shekels ($91 million at the current exchange rates). Since then the state has allocated between 200 million and 250 million shekels annually to operate it. Only men from Eritrea and Sudan are sent there. The facility is surrounded by high fences and is divided into wings.

At first residents were held there indefinitely, were required to check in three times day, and were forbidden to work. Several petitions to the High Court of Justice led to an easing of the conditions there; detention was limited to a year, attendance was taken only once a day, and the crowding in the rooms was reduced, such that each room holds only six inmates instead of 10. The facility’s full capacity is 3,360 people and there were times when it was full. Today only 1,220 people are being held there.

Human rights organizations welcomed the decision to close Holot, but issued a statement critical of the plan to deport or jail asylum seekers.

“Once again the government is performing some political spin on the back of those who have been marked as ‘African blacks,’ all to divert public attention from its real failures. In Israel there live 37,000 asylum seekers, including women and children; thousands of them were victims of torture camps in the Sinai. Instead of upholding its international and moral obligations to maintain a sanctuary system that will protect the refugees, the government chooses once again to lie, incite and embitter the lives of the refugees whom they do not allow to file an asylum request,” said the statement, signed by the Refugees and Migrants Hotline, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Amnesty International Israel, the Workers Hotline, Physicians for Human Rights, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, and the African Refugee Development Center.

“A billion shekels weren’t enough for the Israeli government to understand that incarceration and abuse are not effective tools when we’re talking about people whose lives are in danger,” the statement continued. “Instead of turning away the handful of refugees within its territory, Israel can and must protect asylum seekers like the other nations of the world, instead of jailing them or deporting them to continue their wandering; Uganda and Rwanda do not constitute safe destinations for asylum seekers. The government must offer an immediate and real solution and provide protection for everyone whom it repeatedly refuses to recognize as a refugee.”

Former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who initiated the construction of Holot, was critical of the decision to close it. “Closing Holot would be a serious mistake that would be a victory for the infiltrators and the organizations that support them. Because of Holot, thousands of infiltrators have left Israel and the city centers,” Sa’ar wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “The right decision for the cabinet to make today would be to double Holot, not close it (there’s a plan for this). Every infiltrator who is not in Holot will be in Tel Aviv and in other cities.”

The Center for Migration Policy, an organization working to deport asylum seekers from Israel, also condemned the decision to close Holot. “The decision to close the Holot facility is too early and sweeping,” the organization said in a statement.

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