For the past four years, asylum seekers and their supporters have demanded that the Holot detention center be shut down. Now it’s finally happening, but not at all how they envisioned.
The Israeli government shut down the Holot detention facility, the open-air, desert detention facility built for African asylum seekers, on Wednesday after four years of operation. More than 13,000 asylum seekers were imprisoned in Holot without trial over the course of its operation, as part of the Israeli government’s efforts to force African asylum seekers out of the country.
The hundreds of asylum seekers who remained in Holot were released with nowhere to go and almost no means of survival. They are forbidden from living or working in the seven major cities (Ashdod, Bnei Brak, Eilat, Jerusalem, Netanya, Petach Tikvah, and Tel Aviv) where large asylum seeker communities exist that could support them. Another 300 were given a choice between “voluntary departure” or indefinite imprisonment.
Holot’s closure is part of Israel’s plan to deport tens of thousands of asylum seekers from the country. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan proposed the facility’s closure in November, arguing that Holot needed to be shut down because it had become a “comfortable” alternative to deportation for the asylum seekers.
The Israeli government announced in January that African asylum seekers had three months to leave the country. Those who remained by April 1st would face an impossible choice: indefinite imprisonment in Israel or deportation to Rwanda or Uganda.
On Thursday, however, Israel’s High Court of Justice issued an interim injunction against the deportation plan following a petition filed on behalf of 119 Israeli human rights activists. The court’s decision suggests that it has real concerns about the details of the secret agreement between Israel and Rwanda, which the Israeli government claims allows Israel to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, but which the Rwandan government has repeatedly denied exists.
While the injunction forbids the deportation of asylum seekers as long as it is in effect, the government will continue to conduct hearings for asylum seekers in preparation for the mass deportations, still scheduled to begin April 1. Additionally, the government will not send additional asylum seekers who refuse “voluntary departure” to Saharonim Prison. Asylum seekers currently imprisoned in Saharonim will not be released.
Holot opened in late 2013, part of a rash of anti-refugee measures the Israeli government took in 2012, the cornerstone of which was the 2012 amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law — a 1954 law to prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to Israel. For a number of years, the Israeli government engaged in a back-and-forth with the High Court of Justice over the legality of Holot. The High Court would order Holot closed, then the government would alter the criteria for detention and the amount of time detainees could be held without violating the Court’s successive rulings.
In the first years after Holot opened, the asylum seeker community and its supporters mobilized en masse to protest the detention of asylum seekers without trial. In December 2013, hundreds of Sudanese refugees marched from the prison, in the south of Israel, to Jerusalem in freezing wintery conditions. In an unprecedented protest, over 20,000 African asylum seekers marched to Rabin Square in January 2014 to demand that Israel agree to examine their asylum claims. It was a moment of hope — a false hope, it turned out.
In June 2014, around 1,000 asylum seekers walked out of Holot and marched to the Egyptian border, announcing that they would no longer seek recognition by the Israeli government and demanding that the United Nations resettle them in third countries. Israeli authorities violently dispersed the march and arrested a number of asylum seekers, who were taken to Saharonim Prison.
The asylum seekers detained in Holot faced significant hardship: nutritionally inadequate, often half-cooked food, substandard living conditions, and abusive and demeaning treatment from the prison guards. The food standards were so bad that asylum seekers detained there walked out in protest during the winter of 2016. Israeli authorities refused to teach Hebrew to the asylum seekers imprisoned there, part of the government’s effort to prevent the asylum seekers from integrating into Israeli society. Omri Du-nour, who taught English to asylum seekers in Holot for two years, described it as “a depressing place” where “any visitor can easily sense the gloom.”
Holot was designed, in the words of then-Interior Minister Eli Yishai, “to make their lives miserable.” The Israeli government intended to use detention in Holot as a means of forcing asylum seekers to leave the country. To a degree, it worked. Between 2013 and 2017, 3,959 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda under the “voluntary return” program. Others received asylum in Canada and Europe, while some attempted to make the dangerous journey to Libya, and from there, across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Today there are roughly 38,000 asylum seekers in Israel. Most estimates put the peak asylum seeker population at close to 60,000 in 2012.
The first detainees in Holot who refused deportation were transferred in late February to Saharonim Prison, where they will be imprisoned indefinitely, or until they agree to leave the country. The hundreds of asylum seekers who were released this week are free — temporarily — before they face the same impossible choice as their fellow refugees currently in Saharonim: indefinite imprisonment or deportation.