The view on the road from Tel Aviv to the Holot Open Detention center turns to sand very quickly. Hills of beige and gold, dotted with black stubble and slanting acacia trees, roll by each side of Route 211, which snakes southwest from Beersheba and cuts a course toward Israel’s border with the Sinai desert.
At the end of that road, in what feels like the most middle-of-nowhere place in the small country, Mutasim Ali waits for his friends.
Ali, 28, is one of the most famous faces at Holot, the so-called “open prison” built in 2011 as an alternative solution to the Saharonim Prison, where thousands of African asylum seekers have been held after crossing illegally into Israel on foot. Ali himself did his time in Saharonim, staying at that facility for one month in 2010 after fleeing his war-torn home of Darfur, Sudan and arriving in Israel.
And like so many of the 2,200 Sudanese and Eritrean men who now live at Holot, Ali was quickly released from Saharonim, given a bus ticket to south Tel Aviv, and left alone to start a life here in Israel.
For several years, as both Sudan and Eritrea choked on their own blood and African migrants began trekking on foot toward Israel from the Horn of Africa and the Nile Valley, this was the government’s unofficial policy: Let the migrants enter, detain them briefly, and then bus them to Tel Aviv or Beersheva with a temporary visa that required four renewals a year and forbade them to work or go to school.
Ali received his summons eight months ago, and now lives here, amid the spiky shrubbery and the floating piles of trash and the spires of barbed wire that jut against the desert sky.
In South Tel Aviv, though, Ali learned Hebrew. He polished his already-impressive English. He began working with the African Refugee Development Center, a Tel Aviv nonprofit that helps African refugees in Israel, and soon he became the organization’s director.
In 2013, however, Israel began re-detaining many of its thousands of African migrants, citing a new anti-infiltration law, which has undergone four additional amendments in the past two years. One after another, as migrants who had settled in Israel went to the Ministry of Interior to renew their three-month residency permits, they found themselves slapped with a summons to report to Holot. Ali received his summons eight months ago, and now lives here, amid the spiky shrubbery and the floating piles of trash and the spires of barbed wire that jut against the desert sky.
Holot is a so-called open facility, meaning its residents are free to leave after 6 a.m. each day, but must be back and signed in at the facility by 10 p.m. each night. But to the hundreds of residents – all of them African men over the age of 18, the vast majority with asylum petitions that have gone ignored by the Israeli government – the open gates are nothing but a red herring.
They are so far out in the middle of nowhere, they say, that they can’t ever really leave and get back in time for curfew. There is no medical care here, they say. No education, either. They can’t bring in produce or dairy from the outside, but the food, they say, is both sparse and inedible. Many men complain of food poisoning.
And at night in these winter months, they add, the temperature sometimes hovers near freezing. (After a series of reports earlier this month that residents were having their private space heaters confiscated, the Israeli government ruled that every room in Holot would be outfitted with a heater/air conditioning unit in the next seven days).
Ali agrees that the food is often inedible, that promises of education and teachers have never been fulfilled, and that the facility’s one doctor is ill-equipped to handle the medical cases of 2,200 migrant men. But he is not surprised by any of it, he says.
“There is one reason that they do all of this to us,” he says. “They want to make it very difficult here [in Israel], so that people will want to return [to Africa].”
There are currently about 47,000 African migrants living in Israel, the vast majority of whom claim to be asylum seekers. More than 90 percent of them come from Eritrea, Sudan and the Congo, but Israel has recognized fewer than 1 percent of asylum claims, and since 2009, less than 0.15 percent — the lowest rate in the Western world.
“There is one reason that they do all of this to us. They want to make it very difficult here, so that people will want to return.”
International law embraces a non-refoulment policy, which forbids expelling people who have fled war or genocide back to the country that they came from. Ali and his fellow migrants, as well as the busload of volunteers and activists who visited them on Saturday, believe that Israel is trying instead to make the migrants miserable enough to want to go home by their own free will.
Detractors say that crime and vandalism has skyrocketed in south Tel Aviv as the area has been flooded with migrants. They point out that the vast majority of Africans pleading for asylum are men between 18 and 35 years of age – the exact profile of economic migrants, not political ones. The UNHCR has said that the traffic of Africans toward Israel is a mixed migration, meaning it is stemming from both economic motives and the need to flee political oppression.
To the activists who work in south Tel Aviv and make regular visits to Holot, however, those claims are irrelevant. Nothing, they say, justifies herding several thousand men into a penitentiary without a trial or accusation of a crime.
“Holot should not exist. Holot should be closed. People should not be put in incarceration without trial, in a democratic country, or in any country,” says Elliott Glassenberg, one of the activists who organized Saturday’s solidarity ride down to the facility. “People who have suffered trauma, who came to this country and have requested asylum, should not, by a moral or legal standpoint, be incarcerated.”
When we pull up at Holot, around noon, it is sunny but cool. The migrants who greet us are in coats and hats, and several have scarves pulled up around their faces. Three hours later, however, with several hours of daylight still ahead of us, the wind turns sharply cold. It’s clear that winter nights in this place are decidedly bitter.
Nearly all of the migrants tell the same story – death and genocide turning their homelands to smoke, decisions of either staying and dying or fleeing and risking their fate, and a journey of many, many miles by foot. Most arrived in Egypt and soon realized that that nation’s government, which is allied with Sudan, was never going to welcome them. So they continued walking, and after three days, came to the border with Israel, where the military welcomed them and promised them safety.
“We chose to cross to Israel because Israel is a democratic country. We thought, they will protect us and give us rights,” says Zacki Mohammed Abdullah, a burly 26-year-old whose starched white shirt is blindingly bright against his inky skin.
For Glassenberg, Israel should, as the Jewish state, be leading the world in its treatment of those who seek asylum within in its borders.
“You shall love the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” he says, quoting Exodus. “To me this is the essence of what it means to be a Jew. To know what it’s like to be oppressed and to fight against marginalization and oppression anywhere.”
“We chose to cross to Israel because Israel is a democratic country. We thought, they will protect us and give us rights.”
In late 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that Holot was violating basic human rights laws and would be closed by December 26. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Interior Ministry then scrambled to make Israel’s anti-infiltration law, overturning the closure ruling by passing an amendment that allows for illegal immigrants to be detained for 20 months with no trial.
Holot, for the time being, remains open.
“We are not the enemy. We open our hearts to the Israeli people. We want to make ourselves and our lives better,” Abdullah says. “No one wants to be a refugee, but this life picked us.”