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Freed asylum-seekers in Israel scramble for new homes

Photo courtesy of Sonia Chaim (copyrighted).
Photo courtesy of Sonia Chaim (copyrighted).
3 min


They are finally free. After a lengthy battle in the courts, 1,200 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers that spent more than a year locked up in a detention centre have been released. But there is a big caveat: on their release permits, it is written that they are banned from going to Tel Aviv or Eilat, which are the two cities where most of them lived and worked before their imprisonment.

In the span of a decade, about 50,000 African asylum-seekers entered Israel, fleeing multiple conflicts in Sudan and large-scale human rights abuses in Eritrea, notably lifelong military service and forced labour. They were given temporary visas that did not allow them to work; however, most of them did, mainly as hotel cleaners and construction workers.

For a long time, Israeli authorities turned a blind eye to this, meanwhile giving no answer to the vast majority of asylum applications. But after Tel Aviv residents started staging anti-immigrant protests, they launched a crackdown. First, they brought the flow of migrants to a trickle by building a wall on the border with Egypt. Then, in 2013, thousands of these Sudanese and Eritreans were sent to an “open” detention facility built in the middle of the Negev desert called Holot. There, detainees were at first required to check in three times a day, until this rule was relaxed to once a day. At night, they are locked up.

Departure from Holot. Photo courtesy of Sonia Chaim (copyrighted). 

Ever since Holot opened, Israeli human rights activists have been fighting to free those detained there, and recently won a major battle: two weeks ago, the Supreme Court ruled that asylum-seekers could not be held in Holot for more than a year. This meant that the authorities were forced to release 1,200 of the approximately 1,700 detainees. The government didn’t go down fighting, however: the interior minister ordered them to stay away from Tel Aviv and Eilat.

Six hundred men were freed on Tuesday, and another 600 on Wednesday. Among them was Jamal Omar, who was an opposition activist back in Sudan. He had spent nearly two years at Holot.

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