It was a bright, windy, late winter day in the Negev desert, and Thomas Yohannes, an Eritrean asylum seeker, was getting out of Israel’s Holot detention camp after a year inside.
“I’m feeling OK today,” he said with a restrained smile, sitting on one of the benches surrounded by sand and broken glass just outside the camp’s perimeter fence.
One would think the prospect of freedom after a year in the bleak environs of Holot – the time limit set by Israel’s Supreme Court – would make him quite a bit happier that he seemed. But Yohannes, 29, like some 20,000 other Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, knew that in a matter of months, weeks or days, he would likely be facing an indefinite term in a full-scale Israeli prison, where there’s no sitting outside on benches like at the “open” facility for African asylum-seekers in Holot.
Israel is gearing up for April 1, the date the government says it will begin arresting “infiltrators” – the term it uses for the Africans who fled their repressive countries over the last 12 years, endured the horrors of being smuggled across the Sinai by rapacious, murderous Bedouin “guides,” and came through the Egyptian border into Israel, where they gave themselves up to Israeli soldiers and were, it seemed, safe.
Once the asylum seekers are arrested (the government hopes to apprehend some 20,000, one by one, in three years), they will be given a choice: accept $3,500 and a one-way plane ticket to Rwanda or Uganda, or go to Israeli prison until they change their minds.
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“It’s better to live here in jail,” said Yohannes, echoing the solid consensus among the refugees. “I know some people who went to Rwanda. At the airport they took their money, their papers, told them they couldn’t stay in the country, they have to go to Uganda. Then they were persecuted in Uganda, then in South Sudan, then Sudan, then Libya, and from there they tried to get to Europe, and you can die that way.”
Hundreds did, according to a recent estimate by Hebrew University researchers who interviewed African refugees who made it to Europe after leaving Israel under threats, and with financial inducements, from immigration authorities at Holot.
There are no estimates of how many Eritreans and Sudanese died in the Sinai on the way to Israel; the bodies are lost in the endless sand.
In 2008, Yohannes escaped Eritrea and made it to Sudan, where Bedouin smugglers forcibly took him through the Sinai and onto the Israeli border. Their motive: profit.
“It took us five days,” Yohannes recalled. “They piled about 25 of us into the back of a truck. I took a lot of beatings. They called my family and told them to send $5,000 or they’d kill me. They had to sell half of their property to get the money. [The smugglers] told me, ‘We’ll get the money off you. If your family doesn’t send it, we’ll take your kidneys and sell them.’ A lot of people sold a kidney to get the money to pay them off. I was lucky they didn’t torture me when they were on the phone with my family. They drip burning plastic on your skin and use electric shock so on the other end they’ll hear you screaming and send the money.”
This is a typical story told by Eritreans who made it to Israel, a story that usually includes witnessing the murder of family members and friends. When told by women (who make up about 20% of the refugees in Israel), it often includes enduring gang rape.
What made these people expose themselves to such horrors, to pay thousands of dollars and on top of that face possible torture, rape and murder to get to Israel?
The answer: life in Eritrea. “It’s called the North Korea of Africa,” said Ataklti Michael, 27, also sitting on the benches outside Holot, where he’s been for eight months.
He was arrested in high school for planning to escape Eritrea, a baseless charge, he said, that might have stemmed from a casual conversation with friends on the street. “If the police see four or five people standing on the sidewalk talking among themselves, they can arrest you, because they suspect you’re plotting against the government.”
Michael was thrown in jail, where he slept alongside hundreds of other lice-ridden prisoners on the concrete floor. “If you say one word of complaint, the guards beat you until you’re just broken, finished, and throw you back. The prisoners live in fear.” After two months he was sent into the Eritrean army, where there is no limit on the length of service.
“My father has been in the army against his will for over 30 years, since before I was born. I didn’t want that.” After 10 months, he escaped. (Yohannes, who escaped the army after a year, said his father had served 51 years against his will, and was still in uniform at age 72.)
Michael joined the Eritrean refugees’ treacherous route through Ethiopia and Sudan to Israel, paying off the Bedouin smugglers on the nine-day trek through Sinai with $3,000 provided by family members in Europe. He and his fellows were given just enough food and water – tainted with gasoline to keep them from drinking more than a sip at a time – to stay alive until he staggered over the border into Israel.
The refugees who came to Israel from Sudan (about 20% of the total) survived the same sort of exodus through the Sinai – the difference is that instead of escaping brutal repression and lifelong military service like the Eritreans, the Darfurians and other Sudanese refugees were escaping war and genocide.
At their peak number, in 2012, there were 64,000 African asylum-seekers in Israel. That year Israel completed construction of a fortified fence on the Egyptian border, and since then only 300 more have crossed into the country; in 2017, the number was zero. At the same time that the fence was built, the government began taking increasingly harsh steps against the refugees, including arresting them at home or at work and putting them in Holot. The interior minister at the time, Eli Yishai, said the intent was to “make their lives miserable” so they would leave the country. This policy, together with financial inducements, indeed led 30,000 refugees to leave, bringing their current number to 34,000.
The government has said that for now it will not expel women, children, fathers with children, and single men who filed requests for asylum by the beginning of this year, for now bringing the target number of deportees to about 20,000. However, the current interior minister, Arye Dery and other officials say those exemptions will likely be lifted in the future, the ultimate goal being to deport all the “infiltrators.”
According to the government’s criteria, Yohannes and Michael are currently exempt from expulsion, both of them having filed their asylum requests in time and not yet getting answers.
But Michael says several of his friends who had also filed in time recently lost their exemption because immigration authorities gave them their answer: No asylum. Thus, after April 1, they are slated for deportation too. Michael and Yohannes take this to be the new policy for refugees in their category, and expect to join the expulsion rolls soon.
The overwhelming majority of asylum requests go unexamined by the Israeli immigration authority, and of those it does examine, only about 1 out of 2,000 are approved.
By comparison, other countries, on average, grant asylum or other permanent protection to 90% of Eritrean applicants and 56% of Sudanese ones. Israel’s argument is that it is fulfilling its responsibility to the world’s refugees by its readiness to take in all the Jews among them, and so it should not be required to accept others, too.
As April 1 approaches, the rhetoric used by government officials against asylum seekers is escalating. In February, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said in parliament that Israelis in south Tel Aviv, where some 90% of the Africans have settled, are living under “terror,” blaming the refugees for violent crime in the community.
However Israeli police report that in the south Tel Aviv neighborhood with the largest concentration of Africans, Neveh Sha’anan, where they make up 70% of the population, they account for only 40% of the crime, meaning they are actually considerably more law-abiding, on the whole, than their neighbors. And as for actual terrorism, not one African refugee has been charged with terrorism or any other anti-Israeli activity since they began arriving a dozen years ago.
The planned expulsion of the Africans has sparked a great deal of grassroots opposition in Israel, with one protest rally in south Tel Aviv last month drawing over 20,000 people.
Some Israeli pilots have refused to fly refugees out of the country against their will. But the opposition among international Jewry, especially in the United States, has been unprecedented. Not only liberal Jewish organizations, but mainstream ones that dependably defend Israel against criticism of its treatment of Palestinians and the wars it fights have called on it to suspend the expulsion.
Among these groups are the Jewish people’s leading voice against anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League; the pioneering Zionist organization, the Jewish Agency; and the leading Jewish refugee organization, HIAS.
Even Alan Dershowitz, the single most prominent Diaspora Jewish defender of Israel and antagonist of its critics, said in a media interview: “The whiff of racism can’t be avoided when you have a situation where 40,000 people of color are the ones who are being deported en masse. I just don’t think that would have happened if the folks had been Russians or from any other country ...”
Yet for all the protest, the Israeli government’s biggest obstacles to carrying out the mass deportation may be simple, practical ones. Israel is barred by international refugee conventions, to which it is a signatory, from deporting Eritreans and Sudanese back to their home countries because their well-being or very lives could be in peril. And so Israel is giving the Africans the option of being sent to Rwanda or Uganda, with the government saying that these countries have agreed to take them in.
However, both countries have denied making such an agreement, declaring that they will not accept any refugee sent to them against his or her will.
Secondly, Israeli prison officials say they have no room to house thousands upon thousands of new inmates.
In anticipation of the mass expulsion effort, Israel began clearing asylum seekers out of Holot in early March, ahead of the planned closure of this “open detention facility” built especially for the Africans.
So Ataklti Michael, who’s been sitting there for eight months, would be getting out soon to await his fate. “I’m ready to go to back to prison,” he said. “There’s no security in Rwanda or Uganda.”
Yohannes, ending one year in Holot, caught a bus for Be'er Sheva shortly after being interviewed, and headed for the center of the country to look for work and an apartment to share.
A leader among the refugees in confinement, Yohannes planned on remaining an activist for the cause, whether as a free man or behind bars.
“We are not going to give up,” he said. “We are refugees, we have nowhere to go, and we are going to go on fighting until the Israeli government recognizes this.”