Nearly 1,200 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers were released from Israel’s Holot detention center on Tuesday and Wednesday after the High Court ruled that asylum seekers could not be held for more than one year. Interior Minister Silvan Shalom barred the released asylum seekers from living or working in Tel Aviv and Eilat where their communities are based, effectively leaving them without a place to sleep and slim chances of earning income.
Though the Ministry of Interior offered no explanation for the decision, it is the latest move to make life intolerable in order to coerce African refugees to leave Israel.
On his Facebook page, Interior Minister Silvan Shalom wrote on Sunday afternoon: The 1,200 infiltrators that will be released from Holot will not be permitted to reach Tel Aviv and Eilat. This is the first part of a solution to the complex problem of releasing infiltrators for the rest of the week. We will surely provide a better and more comprehensive response in the next two weeks.
While asylum seekers scrambled to arrange places to sleep, many boarded buses to cities like Be’er Sheva with no plans beyond their arrival. “We don’t have any place to sleep, but we’ll see what happens,” one man told me as he boarded a bus to Be’er Sheva.
Darfurian refugee Hasan Tom, 27, could not celebrate his release from Holot after 18 months of imprisonment. “It’s a very strange feeling,” he said. “I know that I’m getting out [of Holot] but the bigger feeling is that I don’t know where to go or what to do. What is waiting for me after this?”
Upon release from Holot, the asylum seekers received a temporary visa valid for two months stipulating the ban from Tel Aviv and Eilat. Tom initially refused because he would not be allowed to return to the apartment he and his partner, a Palestinian woman with Israeli citizenship, have been living in since before he was imprisoned in Holot. “It’s home to me – it’s the only shelter I have,” he said.
Without a visa and out of Holot, representatives from the Ministry of Interior threatened Tom, he said, telling him he would be sent to Saharonim, the nearby prison which jails some asylum seekers as well as Palestinian political prisoners. “This isn’t complete freedom. Freedom means you can go wherever you want,” he remarked.
After consulting a lawyer, Tom opted to accept the visa and is now staying with other Sudanese refugees in the coastal suburb of Netanya, a short commute to his partner’s Tel Aviv apartment.
After almost two years of waiting to find out what awaits them, the High Court’s ruling and Interior Minister’s ban struck a severe blow to the hopes of many asylum seekers. “I don’t even know where I can go,” said Darfurian refugee Sabon Ahmad Hassan, 20. “I can get arrested again. There is no safe place. If I could stay in Tel Aviv, I’d have several places to stay. I didn’t think it would be like this. This isn’t freedom, this is misery.”
For Hassan, the precarious position the recently-released asylum seekers are now in revealed what he saw as a deep truth about Israel. “This is not a democracy. In democratic countries they aren’t allowed to do this to you.”
By Wednesday evening, Hassan ended up in Yavne, a coastal city an hour’s drive south of Tel Aviv, and is searching for employment.
As buses carrying asylum seekers dispersed on Tuesday, the mayor of the Negev city of Arad, Nissan Ben Hamu, announced on Facebook that he ordered police to erect checkpoints to prevent their entry. He went on to incite vigilante violence against asylum seekers, writing, “If we have to strengthen our struggle on this issue I won’t hesitate to call on all residents to join in the fight for the city’s well-being.”
A handful of asylum seekers were briefly detained and released by city inspectors. The mayor’s Facebook post was dismissed as a public relations stunt by an Arad city council member, according to +972.
Vans from resorts near the Dead Sea came to collect newly-released asylum seekers for labor jobs. Others went to the coastal city of Ashdod where they hope to find employment.
With thanks to David Sheen for translation.