Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters
African asylum seekers gather in the shade of trees during a protest after leaving Holot open detention centre in southern Israel's Negev desert, Saturday. Israeli police forcibly halted the three-day-long protest, Sunday.

Israeli police forcibly end African migrant protest

Human rights groups focused on the plight of African asylum seekers in Israel say the country's Holot detention camp is designed to force them to return home.

Israeli police today forcibly broke up up a three-day desert sit-in by hundreds of African migrants who bolted a detention center to march toward the Egyptian border, where they were prevented from leaving by Israeli soldiers [Editor's note: An earlier version didn't specify the security forces involved.]

The march and sit-in marked a new defiance of Israeli government policy, which recently began ordering African migrants who entered the country illegally years ago to leave work and homes in Israeli cities and report to the Holot desert detention camp. Photographs uploaded to Twitter by human rights activists showed police dragging migrants to buses.    

Though the government has promised to consider the Africans’ requests for political asylum, the migrants contend no action is being taken and that indefinite detention at Holot is being used to pressure them to accept so-called “voluntary departure’’ packages to relocate to third-party African countries. They have asked the United Nations to intervene on their behalf.

The plight of African refugee seekers in Israel, who have been called "infiltrators" by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, has become a high profile human rights issue for his government, since a government that views itself as driven by morality - and a refuge for people fleeing oppression - has used increasingly harsh tactics against asylum seekers. Senior Israeli officials say most of the African migrants are seeking economic opportunity, not freedom from oppression.

`There is no medical care, there is no decent food, and there’s nowhere to go. It’s like a prison, but they tell people it’s an open facility,’’ said Hassan Shakur, a 27-year old migrant from Sudan who spoke by telephone from the border area as police surrounded the protesters.

"This is why we have to move out of Israel and are marching for our freedom."

Shortly after he spoke, an Israeli police officer asked the refugees to get onto buses and return to Holot, or face mounted police and water cannon who would force them back. "Let’s not clash," said the officer, according to a video uploaded to Facebook by Israeli activists.

Threats and punishment

The Africans, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, say they are refugees, while Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government considers them threats to Israel’s national character.

The Holot camp was opened earlier this year and the government calls it a "residence" for African migrants and says they are allowed to come and go. However, the facility is located about a one hour drive from the nearest city, operated by the Israeli prison service, and inmates are required to be present for three roll calls a day and sleep at the facility.

The demonstration at the border was the latest in a string of protests by the Holot inmates against their detention. In recent weeks leaders of the demonstrations have been transferred to a full-fledged prison nearby as punishment.

Africans ordered to Holot have said they faced pressure by prison service employees at Holot to agree to voluntary departure packages, which consists of several thousand dollar stipends and a free plane ticket to Uganda or Rwanda. The migrants claim that those who return to Africa aren’t given residency visas in the new country and risk repatriation to their homelands.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli population authority did not respond to a call for comment, though in recent months the government has held up rising numbers of African’s accepting the voluntary departure as a success. The government says migrants basic needs, including food and housing, are taken care of at Holot.

A report for the Hotline for Migrant Workers on Holot contended that the conditions at the facility, and the lack of legal recourse to challenge open-ended detention, put migrants under psychological stress. The report charges Holot has become a center for the "unjust imprisonment of those who arrived to Israel seeking to find asylum but (ended up in) prison instead."

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