The gates of the Holot detention facility in the Negev closed behind the last of its detainees Wednesday, shutting down the compound after it had housed Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers for four years. The closure of the facility is part of the government’s expulsion campaign. The Population, Immigration and Border Authority began to let out the remaining 640 men last week, and on Wednesday the last 100 of them were released.
Also on Wednesday, the state prosecution told the High Court of Justice that the state will not deport or imprison any asylum seekers slated for deportation during the next two weeks. Nevertheless, pre-deportation hearings will continue and deportation orders will still be handed out. Asylum seekers already in Saharonim Prison will not be released.
This submission to the court followed a hearing earlier this week, during which Supreme Court President Esther Hayut asked the state to reexamine whether the new deportation agreement with Uganda and Rwanda was confidential. Hayut also sought to freeze deportations until the state responded. The prosecution agreed not to incarcerate any more asylum seekers until March 26.
Those recently released from Holot had submitted asylum requests before January 1 and are therefore not liable to be deported at this stage. Anyone who submitted a request after that date is subject to expulsion and will not have his request examined. People in the latter group who were still in Holot were moved to Saharonim Prison, where they will be held indefinitely unless they agree to the “voluntary exit” procedure that will send them to a third country chosen by Israel. Data released by the authority shows that since the start of this year, 398 Eritrean nationals and 40 Sudanese have left the country under the exit procedure. Of these, 104 have gone to the third country and 102 to their native lands. The rest have left for other countries.
A group of human rights organizations advocating for asylum seekers responded to the closure of the facility with a statement that said, “The time has come to close Holot, but conditioning its closure on forced deportation and indefinite incarceration adds salt to the wound. Deporting asylum seekers is a moral injustice and a stain on all of us. The Israeli government is aware of moral solutions that are even more economical, and are still choosing to make political capital on the backs of asylum seekers and the residents of the neighborhoods where they live.”
The organizations added, “Holot was an unnecessary and expensive jail whose declared purpose was to make the refugees’ lives miserable, to pressure them to give up their right to asylum and leave Israel. The jailing of asylum seekers in a facility in the middle of the desert detached them from their lives, abandoned them and eroded their spirit. This was an embarrassing display of pride by the state and the abuse of human life.”
Those released from Holot are forbidden to live or work in Tel Aviv, Petah Tikva, Eilat, Netanya, Bnei Brak, Ashdod or Jerusalem – cities that have sizable concentrations of asylum seekers. According to the population authority, the highest concentration by far is in Tel Aviv, where 14,290 asylum seekers live. After that comes Petah Tikva, with some 2,300 Eritreans and Sudanese. The third largest population is in Eilat, followed by Netanya, Ashdod, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, each with more than a thousand asylum seekers each.
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The human rights groups addressed this restriction as well, saying, “The imposed geographic limitations are merely a cosmetic solution, just for show. Geographic dispersion must be combined with granting status and work permits.” They called on the government to give incentives to employers to hire asylum seekers and grant the asylum seekers social benefits and residence and work permits, in an effort to get them to disperse naturally. This solution will benefit the Israeli economy, the asylum seekers and the residents of the south Tel Aviv neighborhoods,” the groups said.
Holot, located near the Nitzana crossing on the Egyptian border, was opened four years ago at a cost of 320 million shekels ($93 million), with the government allocating an additional 200 million to 250 million shekels annually to run it. The compound, which is surrounded by high fences and is divided into wings, accepted only men who were citizens of Eritrea or Sudan.
At first residents were held there indefinitely, required to report for attendance three times a day and forbidden to work. Petitions to the High Court led to the conditions being eased – detention in the facility was limited to a year, the obligation to report for attendance was limited to once a day and the court ordered the crowding reduced so that only six men were housed in each room instead of 10.