Prison Officials Warn: No Room to Jail Thousands of Asylum Seekers Who Refuse to Leave Israel

With the expulsion of African asylum seekers set to begin in April, it's not clear where Israel will detain those refuse deportation

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
Asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility in the Negev, December 29, 2015.
Asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility in the Negev, December 29, 2015.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

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There is not enough room in Israel’s prisons to take in the thousands of asylum seekers who refuse to leave Israel, senior Israel Prison Service officials have told the National Security Council. Israel’s detention facility for asylum seekers will be able to house no more than 1,000 more detainees, and no funding has been allocated even for this number.

According to a government decision, the deportation of African asylum seekers is to begin in April; those who refuse to leave will be jailed indefinitely. However, the Israel Prison Service will not be able to take in more than 1,000 inmates – the number who are currently detained at the Saharonim facility in the Negev. No further funding has been made available to the prison service to enlarge the facility which is meant to hold all the deportees who refuse to leave.

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The asylum seekrs are now housed in two facilities – Holot and Saharonim. The government decided that on March 15, Holot, which is designated an “open facility,” is to be shut down. There are 900 asylum seekers currently at Holot, and it is unclear where they will ago after the facility is closed. There are another 500 asylum seekers being held at the Saharonim detention center, which is full. The Israel Prison Service has made preparations to enlarge the facility quickly to take in another 1,000 detainees, but the work is expected to take about four months and so far no budget has been allocated for it.

A senior law enforcement official said that intelligence information indicates that once Saharonim becomes a closed facility, much more violence is expected. “A person now at Saharonim knows he’ll be getting out after a few months. But the moment a person is jailed for an unlimited amount of time, it changes the character of the place. The current expectation is for more conflicts and violent incidents. The people there come from different countries. It’s expected that that could spark conflicts, necessitating appropriate separations [between groups],” said the official.

Haaretz has learned that security officials are considering not closing down Holot, which can house a total of 1,500 people. However, such a step would require legislation, as well as converting the facility into an actual prison, with the requisite fencing and security equipment – which would also require funding.

According to some assessments, thousands of African asylum seekers are expected to refuse deportation. Even if Holot is turned into a closed prison, and Saharonim is enlarged, the two facilities could hold no more than a total of 3,500 inmates – and that would be possible only after several months of preparations.

The official said it’s likely there will be clashes and provocations at the facility as inmates attempt to put pressure on Israel. “There must be completely different arrangements than there are now, beginning with more manpower, as well as operational and security changes. There are plans, but first of all decisions must be made to provide significant funding.”

The Israel Prison Service has also been instructed by the High Court of Justice to increase space per inmate to 4.5 square meters by the end of this year. That would reduce the capacity of the two facilities to less than 3,500 detainees.

There are currently about 35,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, and another 5,000 children of asylum seekers.

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