Eritrean Asylum Seekers Immigrate to Israel for Freedom but Find Themselves in an 'Open' Prison

Israel forces African asylum seekers to live in the Holot Open Detention Center, an inhospitable “open” prison that they can only leave for a few hours a day.

Photos by the author

Earlier this year, I joined a small team of doctors, nurses, and volunteers from Physicians for Human Rights, an Israeli non-profit organization, on a trip to Holot Open Detention Center. Situated in the heart of the Negev desert, miles from any major city, Holot was erected in late 2013 to hold 3,000 of the 53,000 African asylum seekers who have made their way to Israel since the mid-2000s, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea.

Asylum seekers at the Holot Open Detention Center are free to enter and leave in between three daily headcounts. Even if people do leave, by the time they reach the nearest city, they will only have an hour or two before they have to report back to Holot. They are prohibited from working, except for low-paying jobs cleaning the prison, and rely on a meager allowance of about $45 every ten days, according to Haaretz, a popular Israeli newspaper. With this money, they must buy clothes, call family members, and pay for transportation.

According to the Guardian, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called the asylum seekers “infiltrators” whose presence in Israel is illegal and a demographic threat to the ethnic identity of the Jewish state. Until they create a path to legally deport the asylum seekers, the authorities maintain that these people must be kept behind bars. In the words of former Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai, “We will make the lives of infiltrators bitter until they leave.”

After Israel's High Court declared the policy of imprisoning illegal migrants for three years unconstitutional, the Israeli government found an original way to ruin refugees' lives. Migrants are now given an ultimatum: indefinite detention, in the newly opened Holot facility, or “voluntary” deportation to Uganda. The 1951 Refugee Convention prevents Israel from deporting asylum seekers straight back to their homelands, where their lives may be in serious danger. To solve this problem, Israel struck an agreement with Uganda for the transfer of African asylum seekers in exchange for agricultural aid. 

The effort to drive the asylum seekers out of the country has intensified in recent months. Hundreds of refugees have received orders to report to Holot. In response to the government’s strategy, a wave of demonstrations has swept the country. The protestors have called for Israel to finally review the refugee status of the asylum seekers, which, so far, Israel has completely neglected to do.

When I visited the prison, a young man named Filmon was among the several dozen detainees waiting in line to receive treatment in PHR's small makeshift clinic at Holot's parking lot. He approached me and immediately began telling me about his journey from Eritrea to Israel and his life in Israel's jail system. We exchanged phone numbers and planned to meet at another time.

Three days later, he called me. “Please come. I want to talk,” he said. I drove down to Holot with Helen, my Eritrean-American friend, who helped me translate his messages. Filmon stood among a small crowd in front of a preaching Eritrean priest. We sat down and discussed the conditions in Holot, life in Eritrea, and his uncertain future. 

VICE: When you crossed the border from Sinai, you were told you were going to prison. Did they tell you why?
Filmon: No. Israeli soldiers just gave us a paper saying we had to go to jail, and took us to Saharonim [the jail adjacent to Holot]. I was there until one month ago, and since then I have been in Holot. Saharonim is ten times worse. You cannot leave at all. When we do something bad, like coming back too late at night, we are sent to Saharonim as punishment. You are put in a small room alone. There is not much light, just a small door for food. They don't tell us how long we will stay there. It can be ten to 20 days and sometimes more.

What are the conditions like in Holot?
We are ten people in a room. The bunk beds are hard. It gets very cold at night—there is no heater, and there are not enough blankets. There is also not enough food. We eat rice, but it is like mud. In the morning we get a small yogurt and bread. We sometimes share to make the portions bigger. No one checks if the food is edible. 

Why did you leave Eritrea to come to Israel?
In Eritrea they forced me to go to the army, so I would not get a chance to have an education. I had been a soldier there for six years. If I had stayed, I would have been in the army until I was 40 or 50 years old. Only after one year and six months can you come home for 20 days. After that, [you can only come home] once a year. 

What is life like in the Eritrean army?
There is no war, but you always have to be ready. All you do is train. If you try to escape and are caught, you go to a prison camp for five to eight years, where they starve and torture you. I had been in a military jail for one year. This is why we chose to leave our country. There is no future when you are in the Eritrean army.

What happened when you left Eritrea?
When I escaped Eritrea, the Rashaida, the bandits, they put us by force into a car and took us to Sinai. It happened very quickly. They were waiting for us in Sudan. They took us to a camp where they tortured us. They heated a piece of iron and burnt me on my face and my arm. They told me to have sexual contact with the girls and with the boys, too. If you don't, they punish you.

How long did you stay at the camp?
I was there for three months. They demanded money from my family, $33,000. [Such absurd ransom demands are common, according to BBC reports]. My family had to sell the house and the gold. They took money from another family. I don't know exactly how they paid. After three months, they released me. They put me on the road and told me to start walking. That's how I reached the Israeli border. I did not know I was going to Israel when I left Eritrea. I just escaped.

Do you want to stay in Israel?
I just want to be in a free country that accepts me. I will be happy to stay in Israel if they let me, but I don’t know Israel. I don't know Tel Aviv. I've been in Israel for a year and a half, and I only know its prisons.