By Ben Reiff, participating on Shnat Netzer 2015/16.
Forewarning: this is gonna be long, but bear with it.
Our day began in Levinsky Park, South Tel Aviv. Anyone who’s visited the park before, as I did almost 3 years ago as a 16 year old on Israel Tour, will have vivid memories of the poverty and disrepair evident on all sides – a stark contrast to the affluent areas of Tel Aviv in which we had spent our previous two days. Our weekend prior to this point had been devoted to soaking up the liberal, secular vibes present in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square and Rothschild Boulevard, and doing our best to fit in at a Balkan Beat Box concert (an Israeli band whose music attracts only the very coolest of Israel’s youth).
More striking than the poverty, however, is the demographic in this area, which is unlike anywhere else in Israel. On arrival in the park, it became very apparent that we – myself, 2 other shnatties from RSY and one from Netzer Germany – were the only white people around. A bizarre non-verbal exchange occurred when the next white people arrived, as it became mutually clear that we must both be here for the same reason. The congregation of white people continued to grow before the organisers of the day’s trip arrived: a group of Israeli volunteer-activists who’ve formed an organisation called March For Freedom, which is involved in “the struggle for the freedom and rights of African asylum seekers and refugees in Israel”. South Tel Aviv is the main area of residence for Israel’s African refugees and asylum seekers; the reasons for which we would discover later on.
We got on the bus and the volunteers started to tell us more about their objectives and what the day was all about. They’ve been organising trips to Holot Detention Centre, our destination for the day, since the facility was opened in December 2013. The facility at any one time holds up to 3,360 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, who have fled their countries in fear of their lives. Holot, in the words of the Israeli government, is not a prison (even though it is managed by the Israeli Prison Services) but an “open residency centre” for African asylum seekers arriving across the Egyptian border with Israel. They say that its purpose is to disincentivise “infiltration” (seeking asylum in Israel) and to loosen the burden on Israel’s urban areas. The volunteers tell us that in reality it serves to break the spirits of the asylum seekers and coerce them into “willingly” leaving Israel, as it would violate UNHCR ruling to forcibly deport them. “We try to go there at least once a month to show them that they’re not forgotten, and to share their stories with the rest of the world,” one of them explained. “We seek to treat them as real humans.”
Before we go on, it is important to understand who exactly these asylum seekers are and what has caused them to flee their respective countries. While small numbers have arrived from other African countries such as Ethiopia, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria, the vast majority have come from Eritrea and Sudan – the two countries with whom Holot is concerned.
The biggest group arriving at Israel’s Egypt border are fleeing from Eritrea. Since Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 it has been governed by a totalitarian dictatorship led by President Isaias Afwerki. In 1994 Afwerki ordered that all boys be drafted into the army for a year and a half once they turn 17. Soon after this, he started to implement a process of indefinite detention whereby those drafted are never released, can’t see their families again and are slaves to the army generals, spending their days doing manual labour in underground facilities. Girls not married by the age of 18 are also drafted into the “army” to be sex slaves for the generals until they are deemed useless in that sense, at which point they are forced to become cooks. Those who resist are brutally tortured into submission, and people frequently disappear. There is no freedom of speech – some 10,000 are imprisoned as “political prisoners” for expressing views that the dictatorship deems inappropriate – or freedom of movement. One witness in a UN report on conditions in Eritrea said “I feel that I cannot even think, because I’m afraid they might have access to my thoughts”.
While not in the same numbers as those coming from Eritrea, many thousands of people have arrived at the Egypt-Israel border after fleeing genocide in Sudan. War in the Darfur region of Sudan broke out in 2003, since which point the Sudanese military and police in alliance with the Janjaweed militia group have been carrying out a regime of ethnic cleansing of non-Arabs: rebels and civilians alike. An estimated quarter to a half a million people have been killed, while a further two to three million have been displaced. The raping of non-Arab women and young girls has been used systematically as a weapon of war.
As our journey continued, the volunteers began to explain Israeli law surrounding the issue of African asylum seekers arriving at the Egypt border. This has been frequently debated, altered and amended ever since the phenomena began in the second half of the 2000s, due to a power struggle between the Knesset and the Supreme Court, and a refusal by the government to see them as the refugees they are instead of economic migrants seeking to exploit Israel. I’ve tried to highlight the important rulings and amendments into a timeline for clarity of explanation:
- Initially, the Israeli government tolerates the new arrivals. They are accepted into the country, but not as refugees: anyone arriving from Eritrea or Sudan is immediately granted “temporary group protection” status and receives a 3 month residency permit which must then be renewed at the end of that period. At the border they are given a one way bus ticket to South Tel Aviv and sent away, with no knowledge of the Hebrew language, no accommodation and no money.
- As the numbers of asylum seekers arriving at the border increases, the government begins the construction of a fence to seal the border with Egypt, which is completed in 2013.
- From this point, the government decides to send anyone arriving at the border from Sudan or Eritrea to the newly constructed Saharonim prison in the Negev for three years without trial.
- The Supreme Court deems this disproportionate, and prohibits the government from being able to keep them there for more than one year. Following this they must be transferred to an “open” facility, and so the government starts building Holot next to the “closed” Saharonim.
- The government passes a new law stating that all Eritrean and Sudanese men in Israel between the ages of 18-60, who don’t have other family members in Israel, can be “invited” to Holot upon coming to renew their temporary stay permit at the Interior Ministry. This includes men who’ve been living in Israel for more than five years in some cases. Any who attempt to evade this assembly are immediately sent to Saharonim without trial before being transferred to Holot. They are to be detained in these camps until they succumb to pressure and agree to “willingly” be deported back to third party African countries (Israel has agreements with both Uganda and Rwanda whereby these countries accept Israel’s African asylum seekers in exchange for a benefits package including arms, military knowledge and agricultural aid).
- The government passes a law allowing them to detain those in Holot for 20 months. Now when people arrive at the border they are sent to Saharonim for three months and then detained in Holot for 20 months. This detention is purely administrative – the asylum seekers are not accused of any crime and they do not stand trial. Anyone suspected of breaking the rules of Holot will be transferred to Saharonim for an initial period of three months, with increasing sentences for repeat offenders. The new law also permits those inside Holot to file asylum claims: those outside of prison still cannot do this.
- The Supreme Court again deems this disproportionate and reduces the maximum detention period from 20 months to 12 months.
- Under Supreme Court ruling, over 1,000 men are released from Holot and handed 60 shekels to go and start or restart their lives in Israel. However, the government then forbids anyone being released from Holot from going to Tel Aviv or Eilat, even if this is where there lives were before they were detained.
- The draft bill currently before the Knesset, now the 6th amendment to the “anti-infiltration law”, would permit the government to summon people to Holot even if they do have wives or children with them in Israel. It would also prevent them from appealing their cases to the Supreme Court.
Our arrival at Holot was very abrupt. The previous two hours of travel had shown us nothing but seemingly endless desert, until suddenly the camps were in sight. 6 metre high fences surrounded two separate facilities separated by the road along which we were entering the complex. We passed through a gate into a sandy courtyard-like area that resembled a miniature civilisation; there were food stalls, games areas, music blaring out of car speakers and hundreds of men – many with very visible scars on their faces and arms – wandering around, sitting down, chatting, buying and selling.
What we had just entered was the exterior of Holot Open Residency Centre. This area, outside of Holot’s perimeter fence, has been utilised by the detainees to create something of a normal life for themselves while they are being held in the facility. They are allowed to do as they please during the day but this is restricted by the fact that they have three roll-calls per day (one at 6am, one at noon and one in the evening) at which they must be present or they risk being transferred to the next door Saharonim prison. There is a 10pm curfew by which time the detainees must be back inside the fenced perimeter, and they must remain in their dormitories, each containing ten men, until morning.
As outsiders, we are not permitted to enter the premises of Holot, and so our day would be spent in the area immediately outside. Once out of the bus we sat down on some benches, as the volunteers arranged that some of the detainees they knew well from their regular meetings with them in Holot would share with us their stories. We heard from several men: some from Eritrea and some from Sudan, each with unique and yet very similar stories. The first man we heard from is now free from Holot and had accompanied us on our trip from South Tel Aviv where he now lives, but the other stories we heard all came from current detainees. I’ve compiled their stories below (unfortunately none are accompanied by photos as the men fear that if their photo is put on the internet they will be seen as “anti-regime activists” in their home countries and thus will be killed if they ever had to return):
Mutasim: Sudan; ex-detainee
“As long as you are an African in Israel, you don’t belong here” says Mutasim, who fled the genocide in Darfur and has lived in Israel since 2009. He spent 14 months in Holot, and has now been free for six. Holot, Mutasim explains, breaks the spirits of the asylum seekers until they are ready to succumb to the constant pressure the government places on them to “choose” to leave the country. He describes the conditions inside the facility as “horrible”, and tells us how the detainees are mistreated by the prison authorities. He explains that most people in Holot have been in Israel for more than 3 years and were summoned under recent amendments to the anti-infiltration law. Most also spent time in Saharonim upon entering Israel and were released with a bus ticket to South Tel Aviv. “It makes no sense to keep me in Holot and pay for my meals when there are people in South Tel Aviv eating from garbage,” he goes on. “The government has a moral obligation to deal with this in a fair way.”
Burus: Eritrea; detainee
Burus has spent the last 4 months in Holot. In 2010 he arrived in Israel from Eritrea, where he was a high school teacher. After being imprisoned numerous times for his political views he fled to a refugee camp in neighbouring Sudan where he and other refugees received a mere one day’s food before being abandoned. He found work doing manual labour in the capital city of Khartoum, and was encouraged by locals who had witnessed the journeys of countless refugees to travel to Europe to start a new life. At this point, however, the Mediterranean was being strictly policed and migrants attempting to cross stood little chance of reaching the other side without being caught and sent back. He turned his attention to Israel after hearing it described as “the only democracy in the Middle East”, and managed to reach the border after crossing the Sinai desert on foot. Upon entering Israel he was placed in Saharonim prison for one month and then given a bus ticket to South Tel Aviv. Once there, he met other Eritreans who had made the same journey, and they helped him find work and a place to live. After this he moved to Ra’anana, but was soon summoned to Holot. “Holot is a prison, but we are not criminals,” says Burus. “Every individual needs freedom; I don’t have this freedom in my country. We wait here in hope that tomorrow our country be in peace so we can return.”
Adam: Sudan; detainee
Adam was summoned to Holot in 2015 after having lived in South Tel Aviv for 4 years. His village in Darfur was burned down by the government, resulting in the deaths of his cousin and many of his friends. Adam and his surviving family moved to a different nearby village but were constantly targeted by militias, leading to Adam and his uncle deciding to flee to Khartoum. Here he was put in jail, and upon being released he headed to Israel. For over a year now he has been filling out different asylum forms and was even interviewed a few months ago, but he is still waiting for an answer. [At this point, one of the hundreds of men who had now gathered around our benches to see what was going on and listen to the stories being told started to shout over the softly spoken Adam, clearly feeling that Adam wasn’t doing a sufficient job at describing the conditions inside Holot. “We need a better life,” he yelled. “Water no good. Eating no good. Prison all the time. We are like animals in this place.” Other men attempted to calm him down, seeing that he was making us feel uncomfortable, as they didn’t want us thinking badly of them because of this one man.]
Daniel: Eritrea; detainee
Daniel came to Israel five years ago. He spent a year in an Eritrean army training camp after completing school, but he is quick to point out that army is not an accurate description of what the camp entails. He described how the young boys were slaves to the army generals, being beaten or tortured if they attempted to resist or challenge the men in charge. He told us about the President’s dictatorship, saying “you have no freedom to do what you want. You cannot go out or move around freely. They make you afraid.” After managing to flee the army, Daniel travelled up through Sudan and then paid a large sum of money to Bedouin smugglers in Egypt’s Sinai desert to help him reach the border with Israel. When we asked Daniel if, knowing everything he knows now about what awaited him in Israel, he would make the decision again to come here, he responded, “no way.”
As we wandered around the miniature civilisation on Holot’s doorstep, we learnt progressively more about what life is like inside the facility as and when we found detainees who were willing and able to speak English with us. We learnt that the water they have to use to clean themselves isn’t desalinated. We learnt that until very recently there was no heating or air conditioning in the dormitories (bear in mind the desert’s extremely hot days and extremely cold nights), and that even now only the guards have access to the remote controls. We learnt that sometimes the sewage pipes passing through the desert carrying sewage from the nearest town burst in the courtyard outside Holot and are not cleared up by the prison authority.
We learnt that the detainees each receive an allowance of 16 shekels a day. The closest city they can visit is Be’er Sheva, but a round trip to Be’er Sheva amounts to 40 shekels on the buses from the facility (it is forbidden to drive your own transport when you are being held at Holot even if you drove yourself there, so there are several cars abandoned outside the fence), and even if you do save up the money for a trip your time there is limited by the three daily roll-calls at which all detainees must be present. We learnt that the meals inside Holot consist invariably of either overcooked or undercooked rice, and that the medical care available to the detainees is far from adequate.
We also learnt that it is forbidden to learn Hebrew inside Holot, and anybody caught with a Hebrew book is sent to Saharonim. The volunteers explain that the reasons for this are twofold: firstly the government doesn’t want them planning for a life in Israel, and secondly it worries that detainees who learn Hebrew will be better able to file for asylum and additionally explain their situation to the wider Israeli public. And we learnt that although the government claims that all individual asylum requests will be evaluated on arrival at Holot, this is in fact not the case.
The biggest fear shared by many of Holot’s detainees is that they will be forced to undergo the government’s policy of “voluntary deportation”. The third party countries with whom Israel has arms agreements may be safer than the countries that have made the detainees refugees, but the process of them getting there and trying to restart their lives there is unquestionably dangerous. There are several hundred known cases of “voluntary deportees” being killed in their destination country. Many others have reportedly been captured by Isis on route to Libya where they were hoping to set sail for Europe, and even those whose relocation has been more successful receive inadequate funds from Israel to relieve themselves from poverty.
When the time came for us to say our goodbyes and get back on the bus, there was an opportunity to reflect on what we’d just witnessed. With so much of the global and internal discourse on Israel caught up on finding solutions for the issue of the Palestinians, it seems that Israel’s refugees have been severely overlooked. And what’s more, in comparison with the conflict, it is an incredibly simple problem to solve. These people are not a threat to Israel’s security. They are not sending rockets into Israel or stabbing people in the streets. If the government were simply to review the asylum requests that they refuse to look at, the asylum seekers could gain refugee status and live their lives in Israel in peace and freedom. Israel would benefit hugely from their labour, and they have invariably shown willingness to integrate and contribute to Israeli society.
As of two weeks ago Holot has been declared full to capacity, so the government physically cannot keep sending more and more asylum seekers there. The unlawful concentration of a group of people by race should be ringing alarm bells for Israel’s Jews, of all people, and were it not for the Supreme Court things might be much worse. It is written in the Israeli Declaration of Independence that the country will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” but this is far from the reality in Israel today. Mutasim, the ex-Holot detainee who accompanied us on our trip, told us, “I do not see the justice, freedom and equality that Israel was founded upon. But maybe with people like you these can be revived.” Until the government starts dealing with this issue fairly and justly, the refugees’ struggle for freedom continues.