Feature: Saving Asylum Seekers from Holot

3 April 2014

Since the beginning of 2014, Israeli authorities have been sending African asylum seekers to the Holot Detention Center in the Negev. Holot was opened in response to a September 2013 court ruling, which struck down an amendment to Israel’s anti-infiltration law. The amendment allowed for the detention of migrants for up to three years without trial. While the government does not call Holot a prison, those summoned to the desert facility are not allowed to work, must report to the center three times a day for a roll call, and must remain at the facility from ten at night to six in the morning. Anyone who fails to return to Holot for more than 48 hours can be incarcerated for three months at the Saharonim Prison.

NIF grantee the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants has been working tirelessly to help those who have been summoned to Holot. And this week, the Supreme Court is hearing Hotline’s petition against the new policy. Until it rules on the issue, Hotline can’t intervene on behalf of those who have been legally summoned to the facility. But it can help those who have been summoned despite not meeting the terms set out in the new law, which allows for the detention of single, healthy men who have been in Israel for six years or more.

Two asylum seekers who don’t meet those criteria are Avraham Tasfaladat, 30, from Eritrea and Hassan Rachima, 38, from Sudan.

Avraham came to Israel after escaping from jail in Eritrea, where he had been sentenced after forced military conscription separated him from his Ethiopian girlfriend and son. He has been in Israel since November 2007.

Hassan arrived from Sudan in 2005, after his entire family had been killed in the brutal conflict. Since their arrival, both men have been working in menial jobs in Tel Aviv and other cities. In his free time, Hassan set up an organization to help Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel.

Although Avraham and Hassan have both been in Israel for over six years, they don’t meet the criteria for Holot. Avraham is married with a child, and Hassan has chronic asthma and lung problems for which he requires constant medical attention. Despite this, when they went to renew their visa two months ago, they were both issued with a summons.

“I had heard about Hotline from friends, and turned to them for help,” Avraham explained. The two visited the organization’s offices in Tel Aviv and told them what had happened. Hotline staff checked the details and then appealed the summons. Supporting evidence included Avraham’s wedding certificate and testimony from a Physicians for Human Rights doctor who sees Hassan on a weekly basis. The doctor wrote that detention in Holot could be life threatening for Hassan. A Hotline volunteer then physically delivered the letter to the authorities. Within a week, both Avraham’s and Hassan’s summonses had been cancelled.

“I was extremely depressed when I received the summons,” Avraham said. “I couldn’t believe that they issued it to me like that when I was trying to renew my visa. What can I say? Hotline helped me. They help everyone – all the people who are suffering come to them. I don’t have enough words to thank them.”

Hassan was equally grateful for Hotline’s intervention. “Only Hotline can help – everyone knows that only Hotline knows what to do about legal problems. Only Hotline. I could talk until tomorrow about Hotline! They help with everything.”

This week, a petition against sending asylum seekers to Holot is being heard in the Supreme Court. In the run-up to the hearing, hundreds of Israeli intellectuals, including a number of members of NIF’s International Council, signed a petition in support of asylum seekers’ rights. Signatories included Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, Naomi Chazan, and Zeev Sternhell. NIF published the letter as an ad in the Hebrew language edition of Haaretz.

The ruling should be announced in the coming months. Meanwhile, Hotline will continue its work to help Israel live up to the best of Jewish values.