HOLOT DETENTION CENTER, Israel — A spartan holding facility in Israel’s southern Negev desert has become the latest front in a debate over government policy toward more than 50,000 illegal African migrants, whose presence has posed a challenge to a nation founded as a haven for Jewish refugees.
The migrants, who arrived in Israel in recent years by sneaking across the once-porous desert border with Egypt, are mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. They say they are seeking asylum after escaping war and government repression in their native lands.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls them “infiltrators” who seek work in Israel, and he has argued that a continued influx of Africans could undermine Israel’s character as a Jewish state. Israel has built a fence along the border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, effectively blocking a further influx of migrants. But it is grappling with what to do with the tens of thousands already in the country.
The migrants used to be detained briefly and then bused to Tel Aviv, moving into poor neighborhoods in the south of the city and generating a resentful backlash from local residents, who accused the newcomers of causing a surge in crime.
While the Eritreans and Sudanese were not deported, because of the dangers in their home countries, they were not granted asylum and were denied work permits and other social benefits granted to legal residents. Many work illegally in manual jobs.
After Israel’s Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional an amendment to the anti-infiltration law that authorized a three-year detention of illegal migrants, Parliament passed a revised amendment. It mandates a year’s detention of any new migrant sneaking across the border, while thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese already in Israel are to be confined indefinitely to the Holot facility, pending their eventual deportation or departure, possibly to a third country ready to accept them.
The Africans are served a summons to report to the facility – initially planned to hold some 3,500 people – when they apply to renew the temporary permits allowing them to remain in Israel. While at the holding center, they are forbidden to work.
Though Holot, which means sands, is defined as an “open” facility, where detainees can come and go, they must check in three times a day and remain there at night, leaving little time to travel to the nearest city, Beersheba, about an hour’s bus ride away. Surrounded by barren desert and army bases, the nearly 400 Africans already transferred to Holot are battling boredom and growing despair, a combustible mix.
“There’s nothing to do here,” said Shishay Teweldemedihin, 22, an Eritrean who emerged on a recent afternoon from the fenced camp, a sprawl of prefab barracks run by the Israeli prison service, housing the Africans in groups of 10 in unheated rooms.
“How long will we be held here? We don’t know. It’s very hard,” said Teweldemedihin, who used to wash dishes in Israeli restaurants. “There’s not much to do aside from sleeping. We wanted asylum and got jail. I’ve lost hope.”
Nearby, clusters of men meandered across the desolate landscape, talking in small groups.
Their simmering resentment erupted recently in a violent altercation at the camp in which inmates complaining about a delay in delivery of meals were confronted by guards who used tear-gas to disperse them.
Many Eritrean migrants, who trekked to Israel across the Sinai desert, say they fled their country, a repressive dictatorship, to escape the hardships of indefinite compulsory military service. Many of the migrants from Sudan are from the war-torn region of Darfur.
Israeli advocates for the migrants say they should be granted refugee status, pointing to the high rates of approval for Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in other nations – more than 90 percent for Eritreans and 70 percent for Sudanese, according to figures compiled by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In contrast, Israel’s recognition rate is less than 1 percent. For years, Israeli authorities refused to consider asylum requests from Eritreans and Sudanese, saying they already had blanket protection from deportation. Now Israeli officials are telling Eritrean applicants that escaping military service is not grounds for refugee status.
“Israel does not see itself as an immigrant-absorbing country on a broad scale” beyond the citizenship granted to Jewish immigrants under Israel’s Law of Return, said Daniel Solomon, legal adviser to Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority. Most of the Eritrean migrants are Christian, while the Sudanese are predominantly Muslim.
Solomon said the lower refugee recognition rate in Israel compared to Western countries stemmed from those nations’ larger size and relatively smaller groups of illegal migrants, as well as differences in overall immigration policies.
Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants from around the world, including thousands of Ethiopian Jews brought to Israel in mass airlifts in 1984 and 1991. But the U.N. refugee agency said in a statement after migrant protests last month that Israel’s policies toward the African asylum seekers “do not live up to the 1951 Refugee Convention,” which Israel signed.
The statement by the agency’s representative in Israel, Walpurga Englbrecht, asserted that the Holot facility “would appear to operate as a detention center from which there is no release, and that this means in effect indefinite detention.”
“Placing asylum seekers in duress that may force (them) to opt to return without having examined their asylum claim could amount to a violation of the principle of non-refoulement” – the word used to describe the return of people to places where they face threats to their lives.
Solomon, who spoke at a briefing to journalists, said that in 2013 some 2000 Sudanese and Eritreans left Israel “of their own free will,” with a $3,500 grant from the Israeli government. “We are not pushing these people out physically,” he said.
But men held at Holot said that they were regularly pressed by officials at the facility to return home.
Hundreds of South Sudanese were deported in 2012 after an Israeli court ruled that they were not at risk in their home country.
Critics of government policy cite Israel’s establishment as a home for Jewish refugees in the aftermath of the Holocaust and argue that the Jewish state should grant asylum to other migrants fleeing persecution.
The current Israeli policy “has one goal: exclusion,” said Tally Kritzman-Amir, an academic adviser to the Migrants Rights Clinic at the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. “Our historic memory can’t be so short.”
Frustration among the migrants spilled over in a series of mass demonstrations last month in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. At one protest outside the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, hundreds of Eritreans and Sudanese arrived in a silent march, then sat with their mouths taped shut, holding signs that said: “We need protection. We are refugees.”
At a migrant demonstration outside Israel’s Parliament, the well-known Israeli author David Grossman, a prominent liberal voice, told the crowd of thousands that he felt “embarrassed and even ashamed that we have reached this situation.”
“The idea of Israel contains the idea of refugees, of people who escaped a terrible destiny and tried to find refuge and shelter,” Grossman said. “Israel has not created this problem, but there is a problem now, and we have to struggle with it and solve it in the most humane way.”
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.