Two hundred Eritrean asylum seekers are facing deportation as early as this Friday, when they must decide between leaving the country or imprisonment in the Saharonim prison.
On February 4, the Interior Ministry began to distribute deportation notices to asylum seekers who came to renew their two-month visas in Bnei Brak. The notices give them two months to either leave the country with a $3,500 grant or face imprisonment in Saharonim prison.
However, a group of 200 asylum seekers in Holot Detention Center was handed deportation notices on January 17, and given 30 days to decide. If on February 16, they refuse to leave the country, they will be taken across the street to Saharonim prison.
In the interim, both the Interior Ministry and Eritrean activists have stepped up their lobbying efforts to reach asylum seekers.
On the one side is the Population Immigration and Borders Authority, which has continued papering south Tel Aviv with notices promising $3,500, airfare, and assistance arranging travel documents to asylum seekers who agree to leave. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conceded that the country would only deport asylum seekers who leave voluntarily, meaning the Interior Ministry still needs to convince asylum seekers that deportation is their best option. Previously, Netanyahu had threatened to forcibly deport asylum seekers.
On the other side are leaders in the asylum seeker community and activists, who are trying to discourage anyone from agreeing to deportation. The more people who refuse deportation, the more pressure will be placed on Saharonim prison when the Holot Detention Center is closed in March, they say. Senior officials in the Israel Prison Service have said the country doesn’t have enough cells to jail the thousands who are expected to refuse voluntary departure or deportation.
There are approximately 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry. About 72 percent are Eritrean and 20% are Sudanese. The vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said last week the asylum seekers are “illegal immigrants who come here for work purposes” and are destroying neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv, where the vast majority lives.
According to reports, the government hopes to deport 600 asylum seekers per month for the first year.
The Population Immigration and Border Authority distributed flyers in four languages warning asylum seekers that the leaving grant of $3,500 will decrease in the future, and that applications for asylum filed after January 1, 2018, will not delay deportations.
Flyers advertising the “special track” were scattered on sidewalks across the Neve Shaanan neighborhood, even though it is illegal to scatter flyers and business cards on the ground in Tel Aviv. Anyone breaking the law, which is aimed at stopping people from advertising prostitution and escort services, can receive a fine, but only if municipality inspectors catch them in the act of throwing the material on the ground.
A Tel Aviv municipality spokesperson said the city is looking into the matter and plans to warn the Interior Ministry about the possible fines they could incur. Sabine Hadad, the spokeswoman for the Population Immigration and Borders Authority said the flyers were distributed in Bnei Barak to people waiting in line and they had no control over what happened to the flyers afterwards.
In response, members of the asylum seeker community are stepping up their efforts to raise the morale of a worried and frightened community. Thousands of asylum seekers demonstrated outside of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya last Wednesday for the second time in two weeks, demanding the country not accept asylum seekers deported from Israel.
Eritrean activists with the political opposition group Eritreans United for Justice have also organized “morale days” at the Holot detention center in a bid to convince asylum seekers not to agree to deportation, even if that means extended imprisonment.
“People don’t know what’s going on, people from the government are telling them that they have protection and safety in Rwanda and Uganda, and we are telling them that’s not true,” said Afoworki Kidane, 37, an Eritrean who has been in Israel for eight years and helped organize a Morale Day at Holot on January 29.
During a morale day, Eritrean volunteers, many of whom spent a year at Holot themselves, brought traditional Eritrean food and a local band to the area outside of Holot’s gates. Holot is an open air detention center, which means asylum seekers there can leave during the day, but must be at the center between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.
Activists involved in Eritreans United for Justice, which is a political group of Eritreans in the diaspora trying to overthrow dictator Isaias Afwerki, gave speeches in Tigrinya encouraging Eritreans to stay in Israel, even if that means continued imprisonment.
Asylum seekers must renew their visas every two months at the Population Immigration and Borders Authority in Bnei Brak. Some asylum seekers who renew their visas will now receive summons for “willing deportation.” As Holot is expected to close in March, anyone who refuses the deportation could be imprisoned at the Saharonim prison, even though prison officials warned there is no room to hold thousands of asylum seekers.
Kidane estimated that about 5% of asylum seekers are thinking of leaving and taking the $3,500 payout. “We are telling them to go to prison,” said Kidane. “I was one year in Holot, and if they tell me I have to go back to Saharonim I will go back.”
Kidane was a chemist with the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Eritrea until he was arrested for questioning the administration at staff meetings, he said. Kidane escaped prison and sneaked into Ethiopia, continuing to Sudan, then Egypt, and then crossing illegally into Israel.
“Uganda and Rwanda are not safe, Eritrea has spies there, and either they will kill us or kidnap us,” Kidane said.