Around 150 refuge-seekers/illegal migrants who left the new open detention facility in the south on Sunday and before have made their way to Beersheba, where they remained Sunday night refusing to return to the facility.
The men were among the 483 detainees transferred from Saharonim prison to the “Holot” (dunes) facility over the weekend, after the new facility opened on Thursday.
On Sunday morning the Israel Prisons Service said that 54 detainees had left the facility over the weekend and had not returned. By Sunday night however, activists and reporters stated that as many as 150 detainees were at the Beersheba Central Bus Station trying to make their way to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but that police wouldn't let them board buses. They said that the men had left the facility on Sunday and had walked and hitchhiked and taken public transport to Be'ersheba, dozens of kilometers away.
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants said the men had been jailed in Saharonim for between 18-24 months and they expected that they would be sent back soon, even as the new anti-infiltration law means that a detainee can be sent back only after 48 hours.
Following reports that 54 men hadn't returned, the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) said Sunday morning it would work to find and return the detainees, but gave no further details about what steps it would take.
Meanwhile on Sunday, there were reports that some of the detainees at the facility had gone on a hunger strike to protest their detention. Moran Mekamel, a volunteer for the past several years with the African migrant community in Arad, said she had spoken to one man inside the prison who said he knew of around 200 detainees who were on hunger strike. also said it had heard that prisoners were planning such a protest, but had no further details.
Sivan Weitzman, spokeswoman for the Prisons Service, said she was unable to check if there was a hunger strike or who was or was not taking part, and that it had no way to deter people from doing so. “Anybody who wants can refuse to eat and then go outside [the facility] and buy food,” she said.
On Thursday, the Prisons Service said the Interior Ministry had compiled and given it a list of names of which migrants to move from Saharonim, and by Thursday the Service began moving them to Holot.
On Tuesday, the Knesset approved an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law (1954), which allows the state to hold people who entered Israel illegally for one year in the facility, which will be open in the daytime and closed at night.
The new Entry to Israel Bill came after the Supreme Court canceled its previous version in September, saying it was disproportionate. The legislation reduces the maximum amount of time a migrant can be kept in a closed detention facility, from three years to one.
The Holot facility has room for 1,000 people and in the coming months will be expanded to house up to 3,300.
There are around 53,000 African illegal migrants in the country, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, according to government figures.
The day before the new facility became active, PIBA said that its opening would be accompanied by an increased effort to prosecute Israelis illegally employing illegal migrants, not only with fines but with indictments as well.
On November 24, the cabinet approved a plan to deal with illegal migration that is expected to cost as much as NIS 440 million. It includes greater incentives for migrants to leave Israel, including upping the “voluntary return” stipend from $1,500 to $3,500.
It will entail the creation of 550 government positions to handle the migrant issue, including to man the new detention facility, positions that will in the Public Security Ministry, PIBA and the Economy Ministry.