Police were preparing Sunday to expand efforts to end a hunger strike by African migrants at the Saharonim detention facility in the southern Negev desert.
The Southern District of the Israel Police planned to separate the remaining 170 hunger-striking Eritrean migrants in the facility in an effort to end a protest begun by over 300 migrants eight days ago.
Some 1,750 African migrants are jailed in Israel. They can be held without trial for up to three years, according to a law passed in 2012. Prior to the new law’s passage, migrants could only be held by police for up to 60 days.
The hunger strikers are complaining about the loss of their freedom and the conditions of the detention facility. Four have received medical attention.
One striking migrant, who would only identify himself as Solomon, told Army Radio Sunday that the migrants jailed at Saharonim “are innocent. We haven’t done anything wrong. We haven’t gone in front of any judge.”
Life at the detention facility, he said, “is hard. There aren’t enough bathrooms. We eat the same thing every day, rice. There are only three channels on television. We have nothing to read.”
The detainees are demanding to meet a representative of the Israeli government.
“Despite recurrent demands from the prison administration, they didn’t relay our request for a government representative to come speak to us directly,” H., one of the detainees, said last week, according to a press release from Amnesty International. “We’re physically weak, but we’re strong and united. We have no other choice.”
At its height, the strike included 353 detainees, according to Amnesty, but almost 200 broke their strike in recent days, some of them after being sent to other prisons.
Most of the 55,000 African migrants who made it to Israel over the past decade claim they were escaping forced, open-ended conscription in Eritrea or war in Sudan. Critics counter that most are job seekers attracted to Israel’s wealthy economy and plentiful jobs in hotels, restaurants and cleaning.
Solomon’s story is typical of the experience of many such migrants. To escape conscription in Eritrea, which lasts into one’s 40s and includes years of forced labor, Solomon fled toward Israel. He was captured by Beduin tribes in the Sinai desert across the border from Israel, where he was tortured and held until his family agreed to pay some $30,000 in ransom for his release.
International groups have criticized Israel’s handling of the migrants. Over 70 percent of Eritreans who request asylum in Europe are granted refugee status. Of the 1,400 requests filed by Eritreans in Israel for refugee status, the vast majority have gone without a response. Only 17 received any response, all of them denials.
According to Amnesty, Israel is refusing to allow many of the migrants even to file a request for refugee status.
The Israel Prisons Service, which runs the Saharonim facility, told Army Radio Sunday that conditions at the facility were humane and adequate. Yonatan Gher, Amnesty International’s Israel director, said the group’s complaints are not directed at the Prisons Service. “Our problem lies with the government” and its refusal to grant refugee status to the migrants, he said.
The Interior Ministry’s Population and Migration Authority, which is responsible for the processing of the migrants, refused to comment Sunday.
In recent months, officials quietly repatriated hundreds of migrants to newly independent South Sudan. Also, early this month, Israel said it found a third country that agreed to accept African migrants. It won’t identify the country, and it’s unclear when anyone will be transferred.
On Thursday, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein approved an initiative to conduct video interviews with migrants from Eritrea and Sudan who express a desire to return to their countries of origin. The measure is meant to ensure that only migrants who truly wish to be repatriated will be sent back to their home countries.
Elie Leshem and the Associated Press contributed to this report.