By some estimates, 60,000 African asylum-seekers — mainly from Sudan and Eritrea — reside in Israel. For these men, women and children, the journey to the country is perilous: traversing hostile countries, often encountering bandits and facing the Egyptian and Sinai deserts before they even reach the border. Many who start the journey don’t make it. For those who do, they face a kind of purgatory rather than a home.
In Israel, these asylum-seekers are offered a temporary visa — called the 2(A)5 – that has to be renewed every three months, though they are not allowed to work. The State of Israel does not provide them with social assistance, and so many become cheap labor for various service industries, working, for example, as hotel housecleaners and groundskeepers while remaining under constant threat of arrest and detention.
Today, border crossings by asylum seekers has almost completely stopped – largely because of the 90-mile fence that Israel built on the border. (The government used African workers in its construction.) And while the exodus may have slowed to a trickle, the harsh realities of this purgatory remain.
On a sunny Saturday in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv, I heard the hopelessness and frustration with recent government actions at a community meeting of Eritreans. The meeting was held in the wake of weeks of demonstrations by Africans against a new detention law. The mood was somber. In December 2013, the Israeli Knesset added an amendment to the Anti-Infiltration law. It requires asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan to be automatically detained for at least a year and then placed, indefinitely, in an open detention center. The opening of Holot detention center at the beginning of this year followed the passage of the amendment. It currently holds more than 2,000 African asylum-seekers, with a plan in place to expand the capacity to about 8,000.
The demonstrations marked the first time this community made its presence known in Israel. Despite the demonstrations, the community remained in two minds, with some members discussing ways that they could make themselves more invisible. One speaker suggested that they shouldn’t pray in the park because it can upset Israelis, because they pay taxes for their parks and want this to be a Jewish country. The majority of the Eritrean refugees are Christians and the majority of Sudanese refugees are Muslim.
The country’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to what he sees as illegal immigrants as being “infiltrators” in Israel. Worldwide, Eritrean and Sudanese nationals have very high rates of what the UNHCR calls “refugee recognition“: 82% for Eritreans and 68% for Sudanese. Israel, however, has one of the world’s lowest rates of refugee recognition. In addition, a Sudanese national known to have even entered Israel faces a 10 year prison sentence in Sudan, whether they have entered with or without a visa.
The point of the open detention center, and the general policy towards the “infiltrators” seems to be to pressure Africans to self-deport. As former Interior Minister Eli Yishai put it, to “make their lives miserable,“until they give up and agree to let Israel deport them to a third country, often Uganda. If you are an African male that has been in Israel for more than 5 years you will receive an “invitation” to Holot detention center. Detainees can leave the facility, but must report for three roll calls in the morning, midday and at night.
Holot is located in the desert near the Egyptian border. Detainees are left wandering the desert between check-ins, and are not allowed to leave from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. If you don’t report on time, you can be taken to the nearby closed prison of Saharonim. Many were forced to quit their jobs in Tel Aviv and are held indefinitely without trial or grounds for release. The only option they are given is to take an offered sum of $3,500 (U.S) to return to their country of origin, a third country, or to stay in Holot indefinitely.
Mutasim Ali is a 27-year old asylum-seeker from Sudan and is acknowledged by the United Nation High Commissioner as a refugee. Yet, the Israeli Ministry of Interior has not reviewed his case. He has been in Israel for 5 years, speaks fluent Hebrew and is CEO of ARDC (The African Refugee Development Center, a not-for profit organization). He was the first to appeal the administrative processes of receiving an “invitation” to Holot without having an opportunity to be heard. “When you take someone’s life,” Ali’s lawyer Asaf Weitzen, the head of the legal department at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an NGO, says, “and tear them apart from his friends, work and life, it should at the very least be done with due process and must include a hearing.”
The judge rejected Ali’s petition, and he was not allowed a hearing. He entered Holot in early May.