Robert Tait, Telegraph (London), April 4, 2014
The men behind the forbidding barbed-wire topped fence had no doubts about their status.
“This is a jail. We are prisoners here,” said Tumizgie Okebamrime, standing with a group of fellow African refugees, all with arms raised and interlocked in symbolic handcuff gestures.
He was speaking from inside the grounds of Holot, a detention centre for illegal migrants in Israel’s Negev desert which the country’s authorities describe as “open”.
But Mr Okerbamrime, an asylum-seeker from Eritrea, described the isolated encampment in different terms. “Inside we have police, security guards and immigration,” he said. “I came to Israel because I thought it was a democratic country. I would never have come here if I had known it was like this. ”
Yards away, around 1,000 protesters were staging a demonstration, holding placards and chanting slogans in English and Hebrew, including: “Israel, Feel ashamed! Remember your history! You were refugees too.”
Holot–a wilderness of prefabricated huts and fenced-in compounds close to the Egyptian frontier–has become the focal point of Israel’s treatment of roughly 50,000 African refugees, whom the government considers to be illegal economic migrants.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, sees the refugees–whom he calls “infiltrators”–as a threat to Israel’s character as a Jewish democratic state. Ignoring criticism from the UN High Commission for Refugees, his government has refused to consider all but a handful of asylum requests–even though most have escaped war-torn regions and authoritarian dictatorships.
The refugees, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan and including Christians as well as Muslims, began migrating into Israel from Egypt in 2006 before the Israeli authorities completed a long border fence nearly two years ago to stem the tide.
Now they say Israel is using the threat of Holot, together with cash inducements of £2,100, to pressure them into “voluntarily” returning home–where most fear their lives would be in danger–or leaving for a third country.
The centre was opened in December–supposedly as a compromise–after the Israeli high court struck down a law allowing illegal immigrants to be jailed without trial for three years.
Instead, the government added an amendment that reduced jail terms to one year but enabled migrants to be housed indefinitely in an”open” facility.
The high court began fresh hearings this week after a coalition of Israeli human rights groups brought a petition challenging the new policy’s legality, arguing that is is even more draconian than the original law.
Those in Holot–whose numbers have climbed in recent weeks to 1,500 men, housed 10 to a room–say conditions are far from open and in many ways worse than prison.
While they are supposedly free to leave, stringent rules requiring them to register three times a day, together with the centre’s remote location, render that impractical. Failing to register twice is considered a criminal offence, likely to result in a jail term.
“It’s called open but it doesn’t feel open,” said Angusam Hadish, 28, a former political prisoner in Eritrea who spent nearly two years in the nearby Saharonim prison after being arrested on entering Israel from Egypt. “In Saharonim you knew it was closed and had no hope of getting out. Here they say it’s open but when you go from place to place, there’s one guard after another telling you to go back.”
“There are no basic facilities like food and clothing. The worst thing is the lack of health care. If someone becomes sick, they just give them a yellow medicine. There is absolutely nothing to do.”
Worse still, perhaps, is the isolation. Located in open scrub land next to a foul-smelling chicken breeding plant, Holot feels far from civilisation. The stillness of the surroundings is broken only by the frequent over-flights of Hercules planes and Apache helicopters from nearby military bases.
Beersheba, the nearest town, is 60 miles away. Banned from working and with just £82 “pocket money” a month to live on, few can spare the bus fare to go. Those who can fear not being back before the centre’s 10.30pm closing time. Most spend the day sleeping, talking or taking occasional walks outside.
Meanwhile, buses arrive daily from Tel Aviv and elsewhere carrying refugees who have been summonsed to report to Holot after their visas expired.
With plans to extend its capacity to 9,000, the government boasts that its tactics are working, with the number of departing refugees rising steeply . Gidon Saar, the Israeli interior minister, last week said nearly 4,000 asylum seekers had left Israel since the start of the year, compared to just 63 in November, the month before Holot opened.
Dozens have agreed to go to Uganda, according to Israeli media reports, amid conflicting accounts about whether the two countries have reached a formal repatriation deal. Some have also been sent to Rwanda, Haaretz reported on Friday.
Sitting on a bench at the gates of Holot , Emmanual Abraha, whose 16-month-old son lives with his estranged wife in the Israeli town of Netanya, said the government’s policy left him with nowhere to turn. “I have no future in Israel,” admitted Mr Araba, 35, who fled to Eritrea to escape indefinite army conscription. “I cannot return to Eritrea unless there is democracy there. If I go to Uganda, I leave my son without a father. I can see myself being stuck here for years.”