African Refugees in Israel
From 2006-2012, a large influx of African asylum seekers arrived to Israel, with many having been trafficked through the Sinai Peninsula. An alarming number of these asylum seekers were also survivors of violence and torture. Although the state of Israel ratified both the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951 and its Protocols of 1964, in practice it has been a reluctant host to asylum seekers. Less than 1% of refugee claims have been recognized by Israel, one of the lowest rates in the western world. Additionally, the Israeli government routinely refers to asylum seekers as "infiltrators" and has incited negative public opinion against them.
Their Status in Israel
Around 90% of asylum seekers in Israel are from Eritrea or Sudan. Though Israel has recognized fewer than 1% of asylum seekers as refugees, it upholds the principle of non-refoulement, acknowledging that some asylum seekers are in danger if returned to their home countries. Therefore, the state policy toward these asylum seekers is one of temporary non-deportation, officially referred to as “group protection.” The only right this status gives them is a temporary stay on deportation, and they must renew their visas every 3-6 months. Additionally, the state has employed various tactics to coerce asylum seekers into "choosing" to leave on their own, including detention (see below), limited access to medical care, and withholding of their wages.
Holot Detention Center
In the Negev desert and across the street from Sarahonim prison is the "open" detention center of Holot, a place built to break the spirits of asylum seekers that closed in March 2018. The Holot Detention Center was established under the fourth amendment of the Anti-Infiltration Law (also known as the Prevention of Infiltration Law) in 2013, after previous amendments were struck down by the High Court. It housed up to 3,360 asylum seekers at a time, specifically targeting men from Eritrea and Sudan who have already lived in Israel for many years. Though not defined as a "prison", the facility was run by the Israeli prison service and detainees had limited freedom. They could be held for up to twelve months and couldn't work during this time. Though they were allowed to leave one time per day, many chose to stay near the facility due to the distance and cost of traveling out of the desert. Additionally, once released, many were not allowed to live and work in Tel Aviv or Eilat, thus further disrupting their networks and support systems.
For the Israeli tax payer, the cost of Holot has been nearly half a billion Israel shekels (NIS), which does not include the added cost of daily operational expenses. Moreover, as detained asylum seekers cannot work, fewer tax dollars are received from them.
Through both its actions and words, the Israeli government has made it clear that they want asylum seekers to leave Israel. As an added incentive, the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) also offers $3,500 to individuals who choose to leave the country. In March 2015, the Israeli MOI announced to the media that they would be implementing a new initiative for the “removal of infiltrators” to a third country. Under this policy, any asylum seeker residing in Holot who had not applied for refugee status, or whose refugee status determination (RSD) request had been rejected, would be eligible for deportation to a third country or indefinite imprisonment in Saharonim. Since announcing this new initiative, thousands of asylum seekers have chosen to leave Israel.
We now know that voluntary departure is not a tenable solution. While ARDC does not support this policy, our team offers follow-up support for those who have agreed to go to a third country. Though the "third countries" remain unnamed by Israel, personal testimonies have revealed them to be Rwanda and Uganda. However, leaving Israel for Uganda, Rwanda or their home country is not a safe option. ARDC's team members have heard from former clients about their struggles once they leave Israel. Individuals have reported that their travel documents were confiscated by local authorities upon arrival in their new countries. Some faced arbitrary arrest, demands for bribes or encountered problems accessing the asylum process due to lack of documentation. Others were forced to leave the new country shortly after arrival. Sudanese returnees have faced arrest and possibly torture by Sudanese authorities. Others have attempted to flee again, this time to Europe, and have faced danger on their way.