In the Negev Desert, nearly one thousand Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers marched across the arid expanse towards the Egyptian border. Their aim? To protest the treatment they had received while seeking refuge in Israel.
Residents of the Holot Detention Center, many of these protesters claimed they had been not only been subject to unfair detention, but also an unlimited wait on their refugee claims. They have now petitioned the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) to move themselves to another country where they can be properly processed.
However, despite the intentions of the protesters, the sit-in on the border only lasted two days. Soon Israeli soldiers descended on the masses, violently breaking up the sit-in and sending hundreds of demonstrators to a neighboring detention camp. Many of the refugees arrested have spoken out against the harsh treatment, saying, “We have been taken to Saharonim prison. Some of us have injuries including to the face and limbs. In protest of this violence, and our ongoing imprisonment we have now started a hunger strike.”
Most of the demonstrators in this new detention center will be brought before a committee to explain why they broke the rules. Holot Detention Center is an “open” camp, meaning residents are free to move in and out during the day, however they must be back by night. Because the sit-in went on for two days, these refugees essentially committed an illegal action. While some are reporting that they could face up to 3 months in prison, a new Israeli law governing immigration could see them detained for far longer.
In December 2013, the Israeli Parliament passed a law stating that illegal immigrants can be held for up to a year without trial in Israeli prison. This came on the heels of protests by Israelis over the recent influx of African refugees into their land.
This same law also gave Israel the right to put African refugees into these open facilities, such as Holot, for indefinite periods. From here, refugees can wait to be processed or go back to their own country voluntarily. Meanwhile, during their stay, they are not allowed to work. Although the UN and Human Rights Watch have noted that such a law may break international laws on refugees, the Israeli Parliament stands firmly behind it.
Although many look to Israel as a place of refuge due to its historic significance, it has become very clear that for many Israelis, both in government and in society, African refugees are a problem.
Israel has gone on record stating that these immigrants “Threaten Israel’s Jewish character”¯ and just last year, there were widespread crackdowns with the government deporting around 3,900 Africans back to their repressive regimes.
In many countries like Sudan and Eritrea, dissent or leaving illegally can garner life in prison as well as executions for political activists and prisoners. While this deportation was highly decried by human rights organizations around the globe, many inside of Israel supported the move, claiming that the influx of Africans drove up crime rates.
Protesters noted that conditions within Holot Detention Center are less than ideal, with issues regarding sanitation, scarcity in food and a lack of medical care.
Many activists accuse Israel of trying to force the hand of asylum seekers. Rather than giving them safe haven, they are making the conditions so unlivable that refugees simply give up and go home. So for those coming from repressive regimes and conflict zones, their choices remain dire. Waste away in the Israeli desert, or risk their life returning to their country of origin. A choice, it seems, few in the Israeli Parliament have any sympathy for.
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