Large-scale forces from the police and the Interior Ministry’s population registry engaged in violent clashes with hundreds of African asylum-seekers on Sunday who defied orders to return to the Holot detention center and built a protest tent near the Egyptian border.
After the migrants refused authorities’ demand that they board a bus to transport them back to the facility, police began to forcibly remove them from the premises, resulting in the arrest of hundreds. They were transported to Saharonim prison.
Eritrean and Sudanese migrants were willing to face the possibility of violence in Sinai and deportation to possible persecution in their homelands rather than remain in Israel’s desert detention facility, according to activists who spoke at a press conference in Tel Aviv on Sunday.
While hundreds of their fellow migrants camped out at a site a few hundred meters from the Egypt border, a group of Sudanese and Eritrean migrants explained their demonstration on Friday, when some 1,000 marched out of the Holot detention center in a failed attempt to cross into Egypt and make contact with United Nations officials.
“The government of Israel left them with only two choices: to be imprisoned in their homeland or in Israel. These choices are the same,” said Eritrean Philemon Rezene in Tel Aviv on Sunday. “If [the government] doesn’t agree, they should allow the migrants to be turned over to the international community. They have suffered here and they’ll suffer there,” he added.
Longtime Eritrean activist Kidane Isaac said life for migrants in Israel has become “like one large prison” and that “asylum seekers community in Israel have had the experience of being prisoners in this country as a whole, because we don’t have rights, and we are punished collectively, and our voices are not heard.”
During the press conference they phoned protesters on the Egyptian border, who expressed a desire to make it to Egypt and reach out to the international community.
They vowed not to return to Holot.
For the past few years there has been a lot of research on the torture and holding for ransom of Eritrean migrants by Beduin smugglers in Sinai.
African migrants from Sudan and Eritrea go from Egypt to Israel because Egypt deports migrants back to countries where they face persecution, unlike Israel, which gives them protection. Nonetheless, at the press conference spokesmen said that their fellow protesters on the border prefer to take their chances and enter Egypt, in order to find someone to appeal to.
On Sunday, Walpurga Engelbrecht, representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said her organization urges calm, hopes the situation on the border is solved peacefully, and expects Israel to find “a humane solution” to the migrants issue. She said the UNHCR understands the protesters’ frustration and that Holot, where detainees have to check in three times a day, should be called a detention facility, not an open facility.
Nonetheless, she said, it is not clear that if the protesters make it to Egypt, the UNHCR would be able to help them.
“Egypt has recently accommodated more than 140,000 Syrian refugees, so our office there is quite overwhelmed at the moment,” she said.
Police said they would only be called in to clear out protesters if they become violent or threaten immigration officials at the scene. Photos posted online by activists at the border show the police ready to deploy a water cannon.
Sabine Haddad, spokeswoman for the Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority at the scene said that all the protesters had been cleared out by 9 p.m. and taken by bus to Saharonim Prison where they will receive a hearing to determine of they would remain or be returned to Holot.
She added that they were taken to Saharonim Prison, not Holot, as they had violated the requirement that they report back within 48 hours of leaving.