Holot, an open air detention center where Israel housed illegal migrants largely from Eritrea and Sudan, will close its gates at 11:59 p.m. on Monday, the Population Immigration and Border Authority announced.
The closure is part of the government’s plan to deport thousands of African asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally.
Holot opened on December 12, 2013, following a number of government decisions aimed at reducing the concentration of asylum seekers in cities. The vast majority of migrants live in south Tel Aviv.
In the past two weeks, the Population Authority released 480 asylum seekers from Holot with geographic restrictions preventing them from living in seven cities with high concentrations of asylum seekers: Tel Aviv, Netanya, Eilat, Bnei Barak, Petah Tikvah, Ashdod, and Jerusalem.
In the four years since the center opened, approximately 13,000 male illegal immigrants have spent time there. After human rights organizations petitioned the High Court, justices ruled that no one could be imprisoned at Holot for more than 12 months. Holot was originally envisioned as a detention center to encourage illegal migrants to leave Israel or face detention.
According to the Population Authority, since the early 2000s, 64,850 people illegally crossed the border from Egypt into Israel.
About 72 percent of the migrants are Eritrean and 20% are Sudanese. Eritrean asylum seekers fled a harsh dictator and compulsory military service that can last for 40 years. Sudanese asylum seekers fled genocide in Darfur as well as fighting between Sudan and South Sudan.
The majority of African asylum seekers arrived in Israel between 2006 and 2012. In 2010, the height of the wave of asylum seekers crossing from the Sinai to Israel, 1,300 people illegally crossed the border each month. Once they crossed the border, Israeli soldiers brought them for processing to holding facilities coordinated with the Population Authority. Afterwards, many were given bus tickets to Tel Aviv’s central bus station, but no other services.
In 2014, Israel completed construction of a 242-kilometer (150-mile) electronic fence along the border with Sinai. Illegal immigration through Sinai dropped to just 11 cases in 2016, and 0 in 2017.
Kewane, 34, an Eritrean asylum seeker who declined to give his last name, was released last Thursday from Holot, after spending more than two months at the detention center. He said the group released with him spent 12 hours in a waiting area and were told to leave Holot at 7 p.m.. No one provided transportation.
Some asylum seekers were only released after 11 p.m. Sunday, and spent the night sleeping in a bus shelter outside of the gates of the detention center, Kewane said.
Kewane, who has already found a place to live in Haifa, will return to his Tel Aviv apartment to collect clothes and other belongings, since he can no longer live in the city under the conditions for his release.
“I’m angry, but mostly I’m just so happy about being out of there,” he said by phone from Haifa, over the voices of friends and the sound of Eritrean music playing in the background. Though his status is uncertain, Kewane has a temporary visa and is looking for work in a restaurant or hotel in the area.
Kewane is active with the political group Eritreans United for Justice, an international group of Eritreans in the diaspora trying to overthrow Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki, and he faces imminent danger or death if he returns to his native country.
Sabine Hadad, the spokeswoman for the Population Authority, said more than 20,000 asylum seekers have left Israel in the past years. They left either under the “willing deportation” with a cash grant of $3,500 and ticket to Uganda or Rwanda, through a resettlement program to a third country such as the United States or Canada, in coordination with the governments of those countries, or on an individual basis.
Hadad said the Population Authority held a marathon of hearings and determined that 300 asylum seekers do not meet the requirements for release, and will be imprisoned at the nearby Saharonim prison if they refuse deportation. Another 480 asylum seekers, like Kewane, were released from Holot with temporary visas.
Since the beginning of 2018, 398 Eritrean and 49 Sudanese asylum seekers have agreed to leave with the cash grant. Of the migrants who departed, 102 returned to their countries of origin and 104 went to Uganda or Rwanda. The remainder were resettled in other countries, though the Population Authority declined to clarify where.
Israel has “willingly deported” approximately 4,000 asylum seekers over the past four years, according to UNHCR, which has expressed concern over the program.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees is in talks with a number of countries to resettle some asylum seekers from Israel in exchange for Israel giving permanent status to refugees, who would then remain in Israel.
In December, when ministers unanimously voted to close Holot, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan charged that the facility had become a “hotel for infiltrators at the public’s expense.”
In recent months, 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 is unethical and will cause grave damage to Israel’s image.
But Israeli officials contend the asylum seekers are economic migrants looking for work opportunities, not refugees. “We are not taking action against refugees,” Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting in January. “We are taking action against illegal immigrants who come here for work purposes. Israel will continue to be a shelter for true refugees and will eject illegal infiltrators.”