Hundreds of Eritrean migrants at the Saharonim detention facility in the south have been on hunger strike since Wednesday, Amnesty International said. The migrants are demanding a meeting with a representative of the Israeli government so they can be granted the status of asylum seekers.
“Despite recurrent demands from the prison administration, they didn’t relay our request for a government representative to come speak to us directly,” said H., one of the detainees at the facility, according to a press release from Amnesty. “We’re physically weak, but we’re strong and united. We have no other choice.”
The hunger strike began last Saturday with a handful of inmates. They were joined Wednesday by hundreds more, bringing the total number of strikers to 353, Amnesty said.
Fifty of the strikers were separated from the others in an effort to convince them to eat, Amnesty said. The Israel Prison Service said that 130 of the hunger strikers had broken their fast. The strikers have been denied access to telephones.
Israel, like other developed countries in Europe and around the Mediterranean, is a magnet for asylum seekers and economic migrants. Though the physical conditions at the Israeli detention camp appear harsh, large numbers of refugees face much worse around the region.
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.
As their numbers swelled, they began to be seen as a threat to Israel’s Jewish character. Most live in Tel Aviv slums, while their legal status remains in limbo. The government is trying to expel some and find alternative refuge for others.
Over the past year, Israel mostly halted the influx with a fence along the Egyptian border.
Those who have trickled in since, some 2,000 people, have been sent without trial to Saharonim in the Negev Desert, roughly an hour’s drive from the city of Beersheba.
Three of the hunger strikers were evacuated from the facility to hospital after their situation deteriorated, Amnesty said.
Israeli authorities say a detention facility discourages migrants by denying them a livelihood, and claim conditions at Saharonim are adequate.
“There is no doubt one of the reasons we had such a flow of illegal economic migrants into Israel was because the economy was such a magnet,” said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. “It was important for us to deal with that magnet.”
“It’s not a camp. It’s a prison,” said Michal Rozin, an opposition lawmaker with the liberal Meretz party. “You have guards. You are not free do what you want. These people are not criminals. Their crime is asking for a better life.”
Amnesty demanded that the Israeli government cease policies aimed at deterring African migrants and instead provide them with “fair, efficient and transparent asylum conditions,” read a statement from the human rights organization.
Israel cannot deport Eritreans, who make up the bulk of African migrants, because they risk persecution by their government. They can be held for up to three years, but some have left following court petitions, said Sigal Rozen of the Hotline for Migrant Workers.
It also doesn’t deport Sudanese migrants, because Sudan is an enemy state. Advocates said Sudanese migrants are expected to stay in Saharonim, under pressure to leave to third countries.
“The hunger strikers at Saharonim know that repatriation to Eritrea would spell a jail sentence, persecution, and in some instances documented by us, even a death sentence, for them and their families,” said Yonatan Gher, Amnesty International’s Israel director.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.