The first seven Eritrean asylum seekers who refused deportation to Rwanda were brought to Saharonim Prison on Wednesday, after the Interior Ministry gave them a choice between indefinite detention and deportation.
In response, 750 asylum seekers detained at the adjacent Holot Open Detention Center in the Negev began a hunger strike, refusing both food and water, said Abdat Ishmail, a de facto spokesman for the Eritrean asylum seekers in Holot. There are about 1,000 asylum seekers currently in Holot, most of them Eritrean.
He said the asylum seekers in Holot were “devastated” by the imprisonment and planned to protest on Thursday morning in front of Saharonim prison. Holot is located across the street from Saharonim, but is an “open” detention center where people can leave the premises during the day. Saharonim is a regular prison.
“What is happening to refugees, Israel needs to see the truth — these are asylum seekers, not economic migrants,” Ishmail said by phone from Holot on Wednesday. “Everywhere else they recognize that the Eritrean government is murderous and the worst dictator that there is. They receive us as refugees but Israel doesn’t, they imprison us.”
“This is the first step in what is a globally unprecedented deportation operation, a move tainted by racism and complete disregard for the life and dignity of asylum seekers,” the Hotline for Migrant Workers and ASSAF – Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel said in a statement.
“It is mind boggling that Uganda and Rwanda agree to take part in this deportation plan and enable Israel to treat African asylum seekers, some of them fleeing from genocide and dictatorship, in this manner.”
Currently 600 asylum seekers have been given notice that they must decide between deportation and imprisonment in Saharonim. A group of 200 Eritreans in Holot was notified on January 17 that they had 30 days to decide. The original deadline for their decision was on Friday, which the Population Authority extended until Sunday to avoid conflict with Shabbat.
An additional 400 asylum seekers who came to renew their visas in Bnei Brak were notified, starting on February 4, that they had 60 days to decide between deportation and imprisonment.
This means that some of the 400 asylum seekers could be deported starting in the beginning of April, during the Passover holiday. The symbolism of Israel starting to deport asylum seekers to Africa just after celebrating the story of the Jews’ flight from slavery in Egypt is not lost on many activists who are fighting to stop the deportations.
There are currently 500 empty beds in Saharonim for asylum seekers who refuse deportation, according to prison spokesperson Assaf Givaty. He said Saharonim is the only prison in the country where asylum seekers in violation of their visa can be kept. There is a small holding area in Ramle for visa violations but it can only be used on a temporary basis.
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. A law approved by the Knesset in December stipulates that the Interior Ministry will deport asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda starting in March.
People with open asylum applications cannot be deported before the applications are resolved. At this point, women and children are also not under threat of deportation. An asylum seeker who refuses deportation will be imprisoned indefinitely in the Saharonim prison.
Eritrean activists with the political opposition group Eritreans United for Justice have 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.
Since there is a limited number of beds at Saharonim, the more asylum seekers there are who refuse deportation, the more pressure will be placed on the government to find an alternative to deportations, 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.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees is currently negotiating with Israel and foreign governments to resettle a portion of African asylum seekers in third countries deemed by the UN to be “safe,” possibly including Western countries, in exchange for some of the refugees to be given permanent residency in Israel.
In recent weeks, groups of Israeli pilots, doctors, writers, former ambassadors and Holocaust survivors have appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the deportation plan, warning it was unethical and would cause grave damage to Israel’s self-described image as a light unto the nations.
Some American Jewish groups have also urged Israel to reconsider. Even Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, weighed in. While rejecting any comparisons between the plight of the migrants and the victims of the Holocaust, it said the issue nonetheless is a “national and international challenge that requires empathy, compassion and mercy.”
Netanyahu said earlier this month, however, that “genuine refugees and their families will remain in Israel. We have no obligation to allow illegal labor migrants who are not refugees to remain here.”