Thousands of African asylum seekers in Israel and their supporters held a silent march and then a rally in Tel Aviv Sunday in an escalation of their protest against measures restricting their movement and ability to work.

The march began in Levinsky Park and ended with a demonstration in Rabin Square at which the crowd chanted “No more prison, no more deportation. We are refugees, we need asylum.” Police estimated the crowd at 30,000.

The asylum seekers are demanding official refugee status and are protesting the Israeli government’s policy of holding them for long periods in the new Holot detention facility in the Negev.

In Eilat, some 300 asylum seekers held a protest Sunday morning outside the Interior Ministry building.

In addition to the public protests, asylum seekers announced a three-day work strike from Sunday that will see them staying home from their jobs in restaurants, hotels and other workplaces throughout the country.

Former Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) said that the mass protests of migrants in Israel’s first modern Hebrew city underlined the imperative to firmly impose laws mandating their safe repatriation. Some 50,000-60,000 migrants are seeking refugee status in Israel. Yishai said Tel Aviv had become “an African city.”

In mid-December, 250 migrants fled Holot for a sit-in in Jerusalem to demonstrate against rules keeping them in the detention center for up to a year at a time. Hundreds of migrants were arrested during the sit-in.

Holot, an open detention facility, replaces the Saharonim prison complex, where migrants had been held until December, following a High Court of Justice decision that ruled some measures that had been implemented, including the decision to hold migrants for up to three years without judicial review, were unconstitutional.

As a signatory of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel cannot deport asylum seekers if they face danger in their country of origin and, as such, grants Eritreans collective protection, but does not recognize them as refugees.

However, Israel has pursued a controversial option of “voluntary deportation,” in which migrants agree to leave, either to their country of origin or a third country, in exchange for monetary compensation.

Israel has largely stemmed the flow of African migrants into the country by upgrading the border fence with Egypt, but has sparked controversy over its handling of the refugee claims of those already here — very few of which are upheld. It is also grappling with fierce opposition in some quarters to the migrants’ presence, notably from residents in the southern Tel Aviv neighborhoods where many live.

Thousands of African asylum seekers participate in a meeting at the Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday night, January 4, 2014. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Thousands of African asylum seekers participate in a meeting at the Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday night, January 4, 2014. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)