Video: Camilla Schick
Habtom makes the journey several times a week, or at least tries to. With a wife and two kids in Tel Aviv, he said he does his best to make it there every day after the noon roll call at the Holot detention center near the Egyptian border, arriving only to have to quickly start planning the long way back for the 10 p.m. head count.
The 32-year-old Eritrean, who worked at a clothing factory in Israel before he was detained in Holot a month ago, was one of several African asylum-seekers who spoke to The Jerusalem Post outside the remote desert detention facility on Thursday. All were young men from Sudan or Eritrea and all had plenty of time to kill in a complex they said is a prison in every sense of the word.
All of them said they had already spent some time at nearby Saharonim or Ketziot prisons and that even though at those facilities at Holot (“sands”) they are able to come and go during the day, it is still, to them, a prison.
To a man they also complained about a lack of hot water or sufficient heating in their rooms.
Despite its location in one of the most remote and desolate corners of Israel, Holot is a hive of activity. Over the course of a few hours on Thursday, buses arrived on average every five to 10 minutes, dropping off or picking up Prisons Service wardens, as did special buses and transit vans carrying soldiers stationed at nearby bases. The No. 44 bus from Beersheba to Holot appeared every 10 minutes or so, including one time at midday when it stopped outside the front gate to drop off a single African man before leaving.
A little after noon one of the buses stopped and three African men disembarked, rolling suitcases as they walked towards the main gate. All three were new arrivals whose one-month deadline to report to Holot ran out on Thursday morning. One of the men, 29-year-old Rahman from Darfur said that less than a month earlier he’d been in Tel Aviv, on strike from his job at a restaurant in the city. He had been taking part in the protests and marches against Israeli’s asylum-seeker policy that began with the opening of Holot and briefly captivated the media and the public.
“We thought the protests would do something, but they didn’t and now we’re here,” he said, as a Prisons Service warden came out of a trailer to let Rahman and two other migrants in through a side fence.
The January protests were a contentious subject among the prisoners. Several asked if reporters present thought that they did or could accomplish anything, though it appeared that from the vantage point of Holot, the protests seemed in vain.
One man, 32-year-old Ishak Hamad from Darfur, arrived in Holot on January 29 after four years in Israel. Hamad asked whether or not people on the outside, specifically the press could help their cause, though his tone was one of defeat. He, like others, asked for updates about the renewed protests the week before, including a sit-in at Lewinsky Park in southern Tel Aviv.
Hamad stood with a group of around 15 mostly Sudanese men who had left the facility after noon roll call and were waiting next to the bus stop at the entrance. They all said that they wanted to try to make it to Beersheba or Tel Aviv for the day, but admitted that they didn’t have money or any way to buy a ticket.
Hassan, a 27-year-old native of Darfur, had arrived at Holot only two days earlier and was outside on Thursday trying to find a way back to Tel Aviv. Like others, he said that already on his first day in Holot Israeli officials at the facility had spoken to him about how he could get a one-time stipend of $3,500 if he agreed to return to his country. Hassan said that he wouldn’t take the money and couldn’t return home to Darfur.
Though the rest of the men said they could not return to their countries, saying they would face war or persecution, hundreds have already agreed to “voluntarily” return to their home countries since Holot opened, including 773 in January alone according to Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar.
That follows 325 migrants who voluntarily left in December, according to the Population, Immigration and Border Authority.
The government has credited the rise in voluntary returns to a package of measures, including increasing the one-time stipend from $1,500 to $3,500, heightened enforcement against employers who hire African migrants, restrictions on remittances by migrants and the “anti-infiltration amendment,” which allows Israel to jail people who illegally enter the country for up to a year in the Holot facility.
The subject of voluntary returns is a controversial one, with activists and supporters of the African asylum-seekers saying that if the only alternative is indefinite detention then the decision to agree to be deported is not done willfully.
Holot opened in mid-December to house African migrants and today holds several hundred detainees with the potential to hold 1,000. Eventually, it will be able to hold 3,300 detainees, according to the Prisons Service.
The first hundreds of detainees, who moved there in December, were taken directly from Saharonim, and in late January, the first busloads of detainees arrived from cities after their one month deadline to report to the facility ran out.
Detainees are able to leave the facility, but are not able to work legally in Israel and must report for three daily roll calls in the morning, midday and at night, and are not able to leave from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The facility is a rather strange site. It’s ringed by a chain linked fence topped with razor wire, but three journalists were able to walk along the perimeter, talk to detainees through the fence and take pictures for a solid half hour without interference on Thursday.
The detainees have cellphones, wear their own clothes and laze about in the common areas outside the trailer homes, talking and playing Eritrean music next to the basketball courts. The scene looks vaguely reminiscent of Lewinsky Park on a Saturday afternoon, albeit with a palpable feeling of despair and boredom, and whipped by strong desert winds and the roar of IAF fighter jets passing overhead every few minutes on training flights.
Next to the four bus stops at the entrance to the facility, the men stand around and talk about how to spend the day, with the freedom to leave but going nowhere fast. One Eritrean man named Sadig said that leaving always comes with the risk that you won’t make it back in time for the evening roll call, adding that he was told that if you’re late twice they’ll send you back to Saharonim for three months.
A few minutes later the bus leaves with just a couple of men on board. A further five men stay behind for a minute and then walk away from Holot down a lonely stretch of paved road, where they said they’ll walk around in the wasteland for a few hours before heading back for dinner, then evening roll call at the end of another day at Holot.