To Save Money, Israel Wants to Quarantine Foreign Workers in Deserted Detention Camp

Critic says keeping workers 'in jail, in tents in the middle of the desert' in order to make it less expensive for employers seems 'especially cynical'

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
The Holot detention center, in a 2015 photo.
The Holot detention center, in a 2015 photo.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

The Israeli government wants to turn the Holot detention facility in the Negev desert, which once controversially forcibly housed asylum seekers, into a center for agricultural workers from Thailand during their coronavirus isolation period - with the cost to employers as its prime consideration.

PODCAST: Inside Israel's no-change, no-cost peace deal with the UAECredit: Haaretz

At the beginning of August, the director general of the Agriculture Ministry, Nahum Itzkovich, asked the Finance Ministry to increase the number of permits granted to these foreign workers by 4,000, to a total of 29,000, in an attempt to boost agricultural exports.

On Sunday, an inter-ministerial commission examined a number of possibilities for the required 14-day isolation arrangements, as Thailand is still currently classified as a “red country” due to a high COVID-19 infection rate. Minutes of the meeting obtained by Haaretz show that an emphasis was put on finding the cheapest arrangement.

The meeting brought together for the second time representatives from the Agriculture, Justice, Public Security and Foreign Ministries, as well as the National Security Council and the emergency authority, the Prison Service, National Economic Council and others, under the ageis of the National Emergency Authority.

The Health Ministry was urged to make a decision as soon as possible on changing Thailand’s status to “green,” but in the meanwhile, the officials discussed alternatives for accommodation arrangements. The short list included the workers staying on the farms on which they are employed, being housed in so-called “coronavirus hotels” (which is what all travellers coming to Israel without a place to self-quarantine are currently required to do), or Holot. The Agriculture Ministry, Prison Service and Ramat Hanegev Regional Council “succeeded in advancing” the Holot alternative, the minutes state.

It seems the government is not excited about the other alternatives. In light of “the complexity of enforcement and supervision of the workers in households on all moshavim and kibbutzim” in Israel, at this stage the alternative of them staying on the farms is not being being favored, state the minutes. Concerns over a coronavirus outbreak like the one that happened in a complex housing Chinese citizens working on the Tel Aviv light rail train project were mentioned.

The use of hotels would be too expensive for the employers, who, according to existing procedures, must shoulder the costs of isolation. It will be considered only if Holot is ruled out, after an assessment of the costs of refurbishing and maintaining it isolation. If necessary, the decision will be coordinated with the Justice Ministry, “so as to prevent objections from the public.”

Not only would Holot have to be refurbished, a lot of work would have to go into improving its image. The stigma it carries would need to be removed, the minutes argue, by “branding” it “so it will be possible to sell it to the world and in Israel.”

Thai workers harvest spring onions in a moshav in Hatzeva, southern Israel. 28 March 2014Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

From 2013 through 2018, asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea who entered Israel illegally, and who were supposed to be deported, were detained in Holot. The facility, which came under a lot of criticism in Israel and abroad, was closed down after the High Court of Justice annulled sections of the Prevention of Infiltration Law, which enabled the operation of the detention center, for the third time.

“It is regrettable to discover that Israel is considering receiving agricultural work migrants with a stay in Holot – a jail, isolated, in tents in the heart of the desert,” said Prof. Hila Shamir from the law school at Tel Aviv University, who specializes in migration and workers’ rights. Ruling out the other two alternatives, the hotels because of their high cost and staying on the farms because of the fear of an outbreak, seems “especially cynical.”

Even though the costs for the employer are high, it would be appropriate to consider a joint sharing of the costs: The government, employer and maybe even the worker – as long as the worker isn’t forced to pay the entire cost, said Shamir.



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