Freed asylum-seekers in Israel scramble for new homes

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

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.

“We’re like new people again!”

I am so happy to be free. Staying in jail with nothing to do is not good for your mind. Many people became depressed at Holot. But today, we’re like new people again!

Before being sent to jail, I lived in Eilat for six years, where I worked in the laundry room of a hotel. I have many friends there, as well as in Tel Aviv, where most of my community lives. However the authorities won’t let me go to those cities, so I have decided to go to the town of Beersheba, where some kind Israeli friends have invited me to stay with them. I am lucky because I stayed in touch with my former manager at the hotel, and he says I should be able to get a job at another one of their hotels in another city.

But many people who have just been released do not know where to go, and actually have never even been to any other cities in Israel.

Newly-freed asylum-seekers wait for busses to leave Holot. Video by Jamal Omar. 

“About 50 kind Israeli citizens have offered to put some of us up in their homes”

In the two weeks since the ruling, we’ve tried to get organised as best we could. We have found some hotels that are willing to employ asylum-seekers and house them on their grounds. With help from Israeli activists, we have also found about 50 kind Israeli citizens who are willing to put some of us up for a few days or weeks, until we can get on our feet. And some of us have pooled a little bit of money together to rent a few rooms in the town of Ashdod, to help those who have nothing. It seems most people are heading to Ashdod [which is Israel’s fifth biggest city, located in the south], because that’s where there is the most work to be found.

An asylum-seeker poses with the certificate that proves his freedom. Photo courtesy of Sonia Chaim (copyrighted).

But some people, I am afraid they will end up on the streets. On Tuesday, one guy told the Holot guards that he refused to leave, because he didn’t know anyone outside Tel Aviv and he couldn’t go there. They argued and argued until finally he agreed to sign an exit form. I have no idea where he went.

When the first 600 asylum-seekers left on Tuesday, a few people took a bus to Tel Aviv, from where they planned to take another bus to another city. Well, they were arrested as soon as they set foot in Tel Aviv. So it seems the authorities are going to be very strict about this ban.

Our Observer Jamal Omar in front of the entrance to Holot. 

“We were worried about the reception that a bus full of Africans might receive”

Most people are taking the public buses out of Holot, but some of us have rented private buses. We decided to do this in part because we have to bring all our belongings – in my case, three suitcases – but also because we are worried about the reception that a public bus full of Africans might receive, especially in towns where people are not used to seeing us. We thought it would be best to stay discreet.

On Tuesday, when some of the men who had been freed from Holot arrived in the town of Arad, they were met by angry Israeli protesters. [Editor’s note: The town’s mayor also ordered police to block migrants from entering the city]. I hope this does not happen in other towns… We just want to live, work, and go back to our country as soon as peace returns.

Those freed from Holot have been given residency permits lasting two months, after which they will have to report to the authorities in order to renew them. If they are caught going to Tel Aviv or Eilat, they risk being sent to a closed prison facility.

As for all the empty beds in Holot, they may not stay empty long – the authorities have been serving hundreds of currently-free asylum seekers with orders to report to Holot. They are also pursuing their plan to send some asylum-seekers to “third party” countries like Uganda or Rwanda, where human rights groups say they are not safe.

For more on this subject, you can watch this Observers Direct report that our journalists filmed at Holot in April:

Post written with France 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).