Officials: Detention Facility for African Asylum-Seekers Almost Full

An African laborer rides a bike carrying fabric along a main street in South Tel Aviv on Tuesday, February 12, 2002. Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash90
In this file photo an African laborer rides a bike carrying fabric along a main street in South Tel Aviv, Feb. 12, 2002. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Some 2,500 illegal aliens from Sudan and Eritrea are being held at a detention facility in Israel’s far south – and it’s almost full, immigration officials said. When the Cholot facility does fill up, there will be no place to put new detainees. Since, according to the current law, police cannot hold them for more than 48 hours in jail, most will have to be freed, unless they actually commit a crime.

The Cholot facility is a holding center for African migrants seeking asylum in Israel. Israel has become a prime destination for refugees from several African countries, such as Sudan, South Sudan, and Eritrea. Each of these countries is undergoing significant political turmoil, with much of the population threatened by various rebel or government groups. The Cholot facility is reserved specifically for men from Eritrea and Sudan whose refugee status is not clear.

Since Cholot is a holding facility, not a prison, residents are required to be inside between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., but are free to leave the premises during the day. However, the facility is located in the far south of Israel, next to the Egyptian border and many miles away from any town or city, so there is nowhere for them to go.

Many of the illegals who make their way to Israel claim that they are being pursued or persecuted for religious or political reasons, making them genuine refugees – and preventing Israel from deporting them, according to international law. Israel contends that most of the workers are economic refugees, migrant workers seeking jobs – a category of refugee that can be deported.

In order to examine the claims on a case-by-case basis, Israel built the Cholot detention camp in its extreme south. Detained refugees are held there until the investigation against them is conducted. Due to the large number of refugees who need to be investigated, the government’s original law, passed in 2013, provided for stays of up to 20 months in the detention facility. But advocacy groups working on behalf of the refugees appealed to the High Court, which struck down key elements of the law, on the basis of its violation of several “Basic Laws,” which the court has positioned as Israel’s constitutional laws.

In August, the court ordered the state to release long-term residents of the facility or to prove its case against them and deport them. Over 1,100 detainees were released, but since they are still in Israel illegally, many were re-arrested, and were joined by others. Several dozen new detainees are added every day. The facility has a capacity of about 3,000, and is expected to hit its full capacity within a month.

Earlier this week, the Interior Ministry distributed the outline of a new law it plans to back that would allow the state to imprison or deport illegal immigrant workers. The new law contains several key changes to the law previously passed by the Knesset, which was later struck down by the High Court. Officials developing the law are hopeful that the changes will prevent that from happening again.

The new law proposes that the number of months that foreign workers without visas can be detained be capped at 12 months. The court, striking down the previous law earlier this year, said that 20 months went beyond the norm of what is considered a “reasonable” amount of time to investigate the claims by detainees that they are political refugees, not migrant workers.

According to Yonatan Yaakovitz of the Center for Israeli Migration, a private thinktank that develops policy papers on the issue, the law is likely to pass the High Court’s tests – but as a result will be far less effective, preventing the state from effectively deporting many illegal workers. “In recent months there has been a significant increase in the number of illegals seeking entry into Israel,” he said. “There is a great need for follow-up steps to prevent the continued flow of migrants here, such as proposed arrangements with African countries to take in the migrants.”