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The African migrants who are choosing an Israeli prison over a life in Rwanda

Asylum seekers announce a hunger strike as the first refugees who refuse deportation are arrested

    The desolate landscape in the Negev desert outside the Holot detention camp
    The desolate landscape in the Negev desert outside the Holot detention camp (Photo: Flash90)

    In a small country like Israel, few places can be considered truly remote.

    The immigration detention centre Holot, near the Israel-Egypt border, is one of them. It is a bleak place, part of a cluster of dusty prisons and military bases, with no shops or civilian villages. Even the local petrol station has gone out of business.

    This is not the kind of place anyone spends much time in voluntarily.

    “The conditions here are OK,” says Haroun Kabir, a 54 year-old refugee from the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan, who is taking a solitary walk up the winding desert road leading to Holot.

    “But there is nothing to do here. No work and you can’t study.”

    He is resigned to continue waiting.

    Mr Kabir will never go back to his home, devastated by war. His wife and three children have been allowed into the United States and now live in North Carolina.

    “I’ve been trying for years to get permission from the Americans to join them there. Now I’m worried that before it happens, Israel will send me back to Africa.”

    Holot is scheduled to close down next month. At least, that is the schedule the government originally decided last November.

    According to the government’s programme to deport most of the 37,000 Eritrean and Sudanese citizens currently in Israel, they will be given the choice to be “voluntarily” deported to Rwanda or Uganda, or go to Saharonim Prison, just up the road from Holot. 

    “We’ve heard from people who were deported to Rwanda,” says Masgane Omer, a 33-year-old Eritrean. “They are robbed of their possessions and no-one protects them there.”

    Like his friends, he intends to refuse deportation and go to Saharonim. He’s been there before — for six months.

    “It’s worse than Holot; at least here we can leave and walk around, as long as we’re back before curfew. But I’m not going to Rwanda or Uganda, to the unknown.” 

    “Holot is supposed to close down next month and become an IDF base, but it won’t happen,” says a senior officer in the Israel Prisons Service.

    “We don’t have the capacity at Saharonim for all the refugees who are going to refuse deportation. And Holot is already full.”

    Lack of space is only one of many reasons that the government’s deportation plan may not go according to schedule.

    The Rwandan and Ugandan governments have also denied, publicly at least, that they signed agreements with Israel to receive the deportees. 

    Last week, an appeals court in Tel Aviv ruled against the Population and Immigration Authority that is responsible for the deportations, overturning a policy that Eritrean army defectors are not entitled to political asylum.

    The court’s decision could mean thousands of asylum seekers whose claim was rejected can now demand to have their cases re-examined.

    “The army in Eritrea is like prison,” says Yourde Birma, who has been in Israel since 2009.

    “It’s a life sentence and you never know when they will let you out of slavery in the army.

    “But like everyone else, my application came back with a ‘rejected’ stamp. I’ve heard of the court ruling but no-one here explained to us what it means.”

    On Tuesday, the first stage of the deportation plan went ahead: seven asylum seekers who refused to be deported were transferred from Holot to Saharonim Prison.

    In response, 2,000 men at Holot announced a hunger-strike. 

    At a meeting of Likud parliamentarians two weeks ago, deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely admitted that the ministry has not succeeded in monitoring the situation of peolpe who after they are deported to third countries like Rwanda.

    But the following week she said the government was determined “to end the immigration terror” in the working classes of south Tel Aviv.

    The Likud is aware of the adverse publicity that the deportations plan is receiving abroad, especially the angry response from many Jewish communities and organisations.

    There are growing protests within Israel as well. But the policy is still broadly popular among the government’s right-wing base.

    “We are prepared to go to prison so we can stay here, not because we want to live in Israel,” says Aram Aferki, who lived and worked for eight years in south Tel Aviv until he was arrested four months ago and sent to Holot because he had an expired visa.

    “I understand why Israelis feel that in their small country, they can’t take in African refugees, but we all want to go back just to one place: Eritrea.

    “They can offer me Israeli citizenship and a house here, but my family are still in Eritrea and the moment the regime there changes, I’m going back.

    “I won’t stay one more night in Israel.

    “But if I go back now, I will either go to prison or be killed, and I could be killed in Rwanda as well. We’re fighting for our lives.”

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