The Holot detention facility was a moral failure from day one

Holot was meant to hide the fact that the State of Israel sees African asylum seekers as enemies, as a demographic threat, as a foreign body to be expelled at any cost. It is expected to close in the coming months. 

By Omri Du-nour

African asylum seekers jailed in the Holot detention center protest behind the prison's fence, February 17, 2014. (Photo by
African asylum seekers jailed in the Holot detention center protest behind the prison’s fence, February 17, 2014. (Photo by

The Israeli government’s recent decision to close the Holot detention center in the next few months should not surprise anyone who has followed the country’s treatment of the African asylum seekers. Holot, built by exploiting a loophole in the law, was always under threat of closure, it’s legal status murky from the beginning.

Moreover, Holot exemplifies the government’s moral failure when it comes to the treatment of asylum seekers. Not only does the government refuse to distinguish between migrant workers and refugees, it also refuses to acknowledge its moral obligation to the people who arrived here when the country’s southern border was open, and when the government lacked any clear migration policy. There is still no clear migration policy today.

As someone who for the past two years has taught at the Holot detention center, where I heard the difficult and disturbing stories of tens and even hundreds of detainees, the announcement that Holot will close is an opportunity for me to discuss what I witnessed there. Holot’s impending closure will also mark the end of an ugly chapter in the history of the state of Israel. The government’s dreadful treatment of one of society’s most vulnerable groups will remain a stain on our collective memory and a mark of disgrace.

Much has already been written about the Holot detention center and the living conditions there. In addition to the disturbing reports (which I can confirm were justified) about the shortage of food, substandard living conditions, and abusive and demeaning treatment from the prison guards, the general feeling in the detention center is one of despair. Holot is a depressing place; any visitor can easily sense the gloom. It is a place filled with people with traumatic pasts, unstable presents, and completely uncertain futures. Considering that the facility’s explicit purpose—in the words of the man who initiated its construction, former Interior Minister Eli Yishai—was to make the lives of its detainees so miserable that they would voluntarily leave the country, it has largely been a success.

Suspicion and lack of trust

During my time as a teacher in Holot, I came to understand that no initiative inside the facility could last long. The Israeli prison service, which is responsible for maintaining and operating the facility, treats the detainees like prisoners, despite the fact that they are largely asylum seekers, and none have been found guilty of any crime. The facility’s administration is indifferent to the detainees’ suffering, as well as to the detainees’ requests for changes to improve their living conditions and boost the low morale. Again and again, those detained in Holot come up against both the administration’s apathy and indifference and its unwillingness to meet even its most basic obligations. For instance, certain detainees who completed vocational training courses were frequently denied certificates confirming that they had completed their courses, preventing them from working and earning money to support themselves. The treatment of the detainees reflects the fact that the Israeli prison service considers the facility a jail like any other.

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In other words: the fact that those detained in Holot are citizens of other countries; people never convicted of any crime that justifies their imprisonment; civilians who were never tried and whose only offense is that they crossed an unmarked border without permission, escaping wars, torture, and violent regimes in Eritrea and Sudan; that they can enter and exit the facility if they wish—none of this has any influence on the way they are treated by the Israel Prison Service.

Under such conditions, the detainees are understandably suspicious, and even hostile, to anyone who works for the government, regardless of their position or personal intentions: anyone who represents the state is seen as someone likely to hurt and exploit them, or, at least as someone not to be trusted. As a result, an atmosphere of constant suspicion and mistrust prevails in Holot. Even as a teacher, someone who comes with the best intentions, I frequently encountered detainees who simply did not believe that the government would act in their interests. When I reflect back on it now, I recognize that they were right—especially considering that the curriculum at the school in Holot was entirely indifferent to the detainees’ actual needs. For example, the authorities refused to teach the detainees Hebrew, and instead sought to convince them to learn English—part of the attempt to decrease their chances of staying in Israel and increase their likelihood of leaving “voluntarily” to another country.

Whoever could leave, left

The government’s plan, following the latest Supreme Court decision, adds insult to injury: because the government decided not to attempt to determine the refugee status of the asylum seekers, it refuses to recognize anyone as refugees and therefore treats tens of thousands of people without distinction as “infiltrators” or undocumented migrant workers. This constitutes a failure on Israel’s part to meet its commitments under the international agreements on which it is a signatory. Now, with Holot’s closure, the government’s proposed solution to the problem of the asylum seekers is to imprison them indefinitely. It is clear to anyone familiar with the issue that this proposal is not possible in anyway—not legally, morally, or practically. The government’s proposal is intended to frighten the asylum speakers and cause them to leave Israel “voluntarily,” as if they had arrived in Israel by choice in the first place.

The government’s position ignores the fact that the clear majority of asylum seekers, those who fled Eritrea and Sudan fearing for their lives, do not intend to end up in Israel but want to reach Europe or North America by crossing the Mediterranean. Those who ended up in Israel are those who had no other options. It is clear to me from my personal encounters with detainees in Holot that anyone who was able to get permission to settle in a Western country has already done so. Those who remain in Israel do not do so by choice. No asylum seeker remains in Holot because of a love for Israel or the great living conditions—a fact that the government is unwilling to internalize.

I have mixed feelings about the decision to close Holot. On one hand, the closure of Holot is an opportunity to shine a light on what the existence of Holot was meant to hide: that the state of Israel sees the asylum seekers as enemies, as a demographic threat, as a foreign body to be expelled at any cost, regardless of the asylum seekers’ identities or legal status. Holot appears, in retrospect, as an attempt to obscure what was an acute moral problem by theoretically allowing detainees to prepare themselves for their move to another country; Holot’s closure will end the government’s ability to maintain this illusion, and that’s a good thing. On the other hand, it is clear that the government has no desire whatsoever to improve the situation; I fear that things may only get even worse.

Omri Du-nour is a resident of Yeruham, an educator, and formerly a teacher at the Holot detention facility. This article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here