On Saturday, I visited Holot, an open detention center for asylum seekers in the Negev, for the first time. I came with some knowledge and left with a greater understanding and a stronger desire to actively follow what is happening at the center.
Holot, defined as an open detention center, was opened to replace a closed detention center. It was open after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that a closed detention center was inhumane (they have made similar rulings about Holot, but the Knesset keeps passing new versions of the law, known as the anti-infiltration law). All the residents are either Sudanese or Eritrean, both countries which are currently politically unstable. Those at the center, who are de facto prisoners, even though they a have not been charged and are not accused of any crime, can walk in and out. However, the rules require them to check in regularly, meaning they can’t leave for an extended period of time. Visitors can’t actually enter the facility, but they can meet asylum seekers and refugees outside the center.
On first glance, there appear to be some differences from a prison or from a closed detention center, though I have stepped inside of one only once. They have tents outside of Holot that residents have set up in which they hang out, make and sell food, and smoke. While there, I didn’t notice a prison guard in the outside area. There are a few bikes lying around and I saw a few people take them for rides. People can travel by bus Be’er Sheva or other locations. On the very surface, you can identify aspects that do make the place seem ‘open’.
Yet, below the surface, Holot is much more closed and complex.
Holot is not a residential facility, but a detention center. Under the current law, which is set to change again this week, residents can be placed there for up to 18 months. It is strategically based in the desert, leaving them without access to most public transportation. There are buses that run to and from Be’er Sheva, but not frequently enough, according to their own accounts. They have a budget, but it is less than $50 for 10 days, which won’t get them very far. According to what refugees told me, there is no existing education system for those who want to continue learning. Those in Holot cannot work, as there are no jobs in the area (refugees can’t legally work anyway, but employers cannot be fined for this, and so many do work).
They held a protest a few weeks ago demanding better food. Pictures posted by the residents show egg shell in their breakfast and stacks of bread. I asked a few people if protesting made a difference, and they said it didn’t.
So while residents can walk in and out, they don’t have the means to work, study, or receive better conditions.
Many refugees and volunteers agreed that the main purpose was to break the spirits of the refugees staying there. The complex is placed in the middle of the desert, causing them to feel isolated. According to what volunteers told me, the detention center can hold 3,300 people and is at full capacity currently. There are close to 45,000 refugees currently in Israel, so 7% of them can be placed in Holot at any given time. This isn’t a large number, and the main purpose of holding people there is to break their spirits and to encourage them to ‘voluntarily’ return to Eritrea, Sudan or to a third, unknown African country. For most, returning means death, while staying in Israel means spending over a year in both Holot and the closed detention center, Saharonim. While Sudanese and Eritrean refugees can apply for Asylum, Israel does not grant it.
I talked to many refugees currently residing in Holot while visiting. Some conversations lasted a half hour and others only 5 minutes. Many were happy that we visited and chatted with them, exchanging with us phone numbers and stories. Others told us they wish we wouldn’t bother since our visit doesn’t change their status and makes them feel like they are animals at a zoo, with people visiting as they please. Those are harsh words to hear, but they hold a lot of truth. When the clock struck 17:00, we went back on a bus to Tel Aviv, and they remained, not knowing when they would be able to do the same.
By locking up refugees, who have committed no crime and who have no access to a judicial procedure, we are treating them as sub-human. Our foreign ministry spokesman, Emmanuel Nahshon, said last week that Asylum Seekers threaten Israel’s identity and defended Israel’s treatment of them. If taking away another persons’ agency is what Israel needs to keep our identity intact, then maybe it is our own identity that we need to re-think. These people came seeking refuge, and we should not respond by placing them in a detention center simply because they are not Israeli. Instead, we must review their cases for asylum and allow them to live as human beings. Treating those in need of refuge with empathy and respect would only strengthen our identity and our humanity.