Israel's Asylum Seekers Face Grim Prospects as Holot Detention Center Sends Them to the Unknown

Some of the African inmates of the facility in the desert are presented with an option to temporary relocate from the center- but most of the major cities are closed

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Asylum seeker board a bus to leave Holot detention facility in Israel's Negev desert, March 6, 2018.
Asylum seeker board a bus to leave Holot detention facility in Israel's Negev desert, March 6, 2018. Credit: Maya Ben Nissan
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Helfom was one of the first to leave the Holot detention camp in the western Negev. On Tuesday afternoon, the wardens surprised him and 30 other asylum seekers by calling them for a chat. “You are being released in a few hours,” a warden told them and issued them with a temporary residency permit.

Holot camp officially shut down on March 14. It has held thousands of young asylum-seeking Eritreans and Sudanese men since it opened in 2013. Up to last week, there were still 700 prisoners there, of whom more than 100 have been freed. By next Tuesday all the inmates will be gone. However, those freed are not allowed to work or to live in most central cities. Most have no money and nowhere to go.

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Helfom spent only eight months at Holot out of the year asylum seekers were required to spend there under the amendment to the “Entry into Israel Law,” commonly known as the “Infiltrators Law.”

He had a hard time believing that in just a few hours he could leave the jail in the desert which was his entire world for the past few months. “I began to think how I could find work again in Tel Aviv, rent an apartment, wander around, stop counting the minutes in this place,” he said.

Helfom, an Eritrean asylum seeker facing deportation who was recently released from the Holot detention facility. Credit: Eyal Toueg

But his happiness didn’t last long. When he read what was written on the temporary permit they had given him, he was crestfallen. “Temporary permit for a residence visit,” it stated at the top of the document from the Population, Immigration and Border Authority. “This permit is not a work permit [The holder] will not live and not work in the following cities: Tel Aviv, Eilat, Petah Tikva, Netanya, Bnei Brak, Ashdod, Jerusalem. Enforcement actions will be taken against an employer who employs the aforementioned in these cities.”

He read the words again and again and became angry. “Where do they want me to go? Everyone I know lives in those cities. Who will rent me an apartment somewhere else? They know that. I will have to sleep on the street like I slept in Levinsky Park for two weeks when I first came to south Tel Aviv. Between prison and a homeless life, I don’t know which is better,” said Helfom.

For years, the opponents of jailing and deporting asylum seekers have been saying the government is responsible for the difficulties of the residents of south Tel Aviv – where the greatest concentration of asylum seekers have settled, after they were brought there on buses by the government. They suggest distributing the asylum seekers more equally in various towns around the country instead of deporting them. However, without money and a checkbook, the released Holot inmates will not be able to rent an apartment in nice suburbs like Herzliya, Givatayim or Rishon Letzion.

“In south Tel Aviv they are used to renting to us, I made some phone calls since I was released and no one wants to rent an apartment to a gang of asylum seekers. Israelis are not interested in us,” Helfom says.

Three days after his release from Holot, no remnant of the initial joy on hearing of his release remains. The excitement was replaced by fear. For now, he is living with friends in Tel Aviv and is afraid the Immigration Authority inspectors will catch him. They were told in Holot that those who are caught in one of the banned cities will be returned to jail – this time to the Saharonim facility for an undefined period of time. “The Israel Prison Service told us that those who are caught will stay in jail. I’m scared. I’m hiding here for now and looking for an apartment, but it’s not easy. I don’t have money and I don’t have work somewhere else,” says Helfom.

The Population and Immigration Authority said in response that “enforcement will be done according to the law,” and denied that everyone who is caught will be sent to Saharonim.

Haaretz has learned that since January 1, when the deportation plan began, 455 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals have left Israel in the so-called “voluntary departure program.” About 12,000 men whose applications for asylum were refused are expected to be deported. Some 39,000 Eritreans and Sudanese are currently staying in Israel, about 5,000 of them children.

African asylum seekers waiting at a bus station outside the Saharonim detention facility.Credit: Maya Ben Nissan

The authorities say that at this stage no women or children will be deported. Either way, for Sudanese and Eritrean citizens released form Holot, it’s going from one prison to another. From an isolated and fenced-in facility in the desert, they are thrown into a life of fear and persecution in cities where they are forbidden to live or work, to imprisonment for an unlimited period in Saharonim or forced deportation to a third country. When these are the only scenarios that Helfom and his friends can see on their horizon, it is no wonder that they are finding it hard to preserve even a slim glimmer of hope.

The detainees at Holot were obliged to remain in the compound from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M. During the day they could leave the compound, but not work. Many of them don’t venture beyond the compound’s desert surroundings. Their pocket money, some 500 shekels a month, is not enough for long trips. They count the days in boredom and spend most of the day sleeping.

Helfom’s situation is relatively good. He and those who submitted their asylum requests by December 31, 2017 and have not been refused, will be released from Holot. The rest will be moved to the nearby Saharonim prison. Haaretz has learned that 50 people have already been imprisoned in Saharonim.

The authorities’ responsibility pertains only to closing the facility down. On the other hand, private groups are trying to help the refugees survive in the new reality. For example, Kibbutz Movement Secretary General Nir Meir and Dr. Avi Ofer sent a letter this week asking all the kibbutzim in Israel to take in asylum seekers following their release from Holot.

“We call on kibbutzim to make every effort to host/take in, if only for a few months, most of the asylum seekers and provide them with housing and work as much as possible. These are people with a legal visa and are permitted to work. This is a test for all of usPlease respond generously and in keeping with our Jewish, humane and kibbutz values.”

After a discussion on the matter a month ago at the request of several kibbutzim, the movement’s secretariat wrote in summary that “the Kibbutz Movement cannot stand idly by in view of the asylum seekers' expected expulsion, which is seen as opposed to Judaism, humanism and the Kibbutz Movement values.”

Stop the Deportation, a movement set up by students who object to deporting the asylum seekers, is also seeking a solution. “Deporting the asylum seekers is a moral stain on Israel and we can still stop it,” says movement activist Yoav Kellerman.

“Closing Holot at this time is meant to pressure the asylum seekers further. Forbidding them to live or work in central cities is intended to deteriorate them to hunger or turn them into outlaws against their will. This is on top of a series of inhumane act the state is imposing on the asylum seekers and will take their toll on Israel’s citizens as well,” he says.

The Saharonim detention facility.Credit: Maya Ben Nissan

“Numerous initiatives are taking place to help them find employment and housing all over the country. Dozens of business owners have agreed to employ them,” he says. However, the plans are still being made and the freshly discharged refugees still have nowhere to go.

On Tuesday Helfom and some 40 others were released; on Wednesday another group came out of the prison. They were smiling broadly and taking photographs with each other “to post on Facebook, to show friends,” one of them says.

“I’m never coming back here,” says Halo, 27, an asylum seeker from Eritrea, before getting on the bus. “I almost went mad here. They think we’re not human beings in Israel. I’m not a murderer, or a thief, I’ve done nothing wrong. I came here to ask for asylum. My brothers were very well received in Europe. I’m a young man, and instead of letting me live they stuck me in a prison in the desert,” he says.

Outside the compound a young man circles a bench over and over. “Pay no attention, poor guy, he went mad here,” a colleague of his says. “He was OK when he came here. Some people have lost their sanity in Holot.”

Sigal Rozen, Public Policy Coordinator at the Hotline for Migrants Workers, who has been accompanying the Eritrean and Sudanese community from its first days in Israel, says: “It’s extremely troubling that the prison called Holot, whose declared purpose was to make the asylum seekers' lives miserable until they leave, has survived four years, during which we’ve seen the authorities try to break their spirits.”

“This facility has no equal in the world and it’s sad that it took more than a billion shekels of the taxpayers’ money until they decided to close it, and forcefully deport the inmates,” says Rozen, who visited the prison regularly from the day it opened.

“There are moral, just solutions that are also economically sound, the authorities know this yet choose to ignore it and continue their brutal policy of imprisonment and denying the asylum seekers a legal status in Israel,” she says.

In a phone call the day after his release, Halo said he was trying to get used to Rehovot again. “They told me this is a good city. Somebody I know here got me food and a bed to sleep in at his house for the night. There are good people. I’ll find a job, I have no choice. I’m a good worker. I don’t want to risk going back to jail now,” He said. As to what he will do when he is asked to choose between Saharonim and leaving for Uganda or Rwanda, he finds it difficult to answer. “I can’t do either one. I can’t leave Israel and I can’t go back to jail. I’m praying.”

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