African migrants protest in Jerusalem against detention policies, December 17, 2013 Photo: Benji Rosen

Police and immigration enforcement officers rounded up hundreds of African migrants rallying in Jerusalem on Tuesday, who demanded the state recognize their asylum claims and stop jailing them in detention centers in the South.

The group included some of the hundreds of migrants who had left the new Holot open detention facility over the weekend and refused to return.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said of the protesters that “a law is a law, and it certainly applies to illegal workers.” He added that the migrants who had been moved to the open facility “can either stay there or return to their countries.”

Most of Israel’s 55,000 African migrants are from Eritrea and Sudan, and could face persecution if they return.

At around 3 p.m. on Tuesday, a representative of the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) arrived outside the Knesset and told the migrants they had to get on the bus or be removed by force. Many made their way willingly onto the buses, but others refused and were forcibly placed on the vehicles by YASSAM officers and immigration enforcement officials.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Video by Benji Rosen

Authorities had to wait until the afternoon to do this, due to regulations stipulating that 48 hours must elapse between the time a detainee leaves a holding center and the time he or she can be arrested.

The approximately 200 migrants who left the protest made their way back to the South, where they will now be confined at the Saharonim closed prison instead of Holot.

On Sunday night, around 150 migrants made their way to the Beersheba bus station, where they tried to board buses to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere. On Monday night they received shelter at Kibbutz Nahshon, north of Beit Shemesh, and in the morning were driven to Jerusalem by bus, with a police escort.

Altogether, 320 out of the 483 detainees who moved into Holot after it opened on Thursday had not returned to the facility as of Tuesday morning. They are demanding that the state examine their asylum requests and stop keeping them in legal limbo.

The men had all been jailed in the Saharonim prison next to Holot for well over a year. Many had been told they would be released, only to be moved to the open facility.

The new facility was built to house migrants arrested as Israel enforces the new amendment to the anti-infiltration law, which allows the state to hold people who enter the country illegally at the facility. Holot is open during the day, but is locked at night with a headcount.

One supporter who came to Jerusalem on Tuesday was Anwar Suleiman, a native of Darfur who has lived in Israel for five years.

He said his fellow asylum-seekers were trying to submit a letter to the state asking for it to recognize them as refugees and stop jailing them as illegal migrants.

“You can’t put people in a place and tell them it’s a prison but it’s open,” he said.

Suleiman said they planned to stay at the protest until they were arrested, adding, “I can’t go back to my country because they’ll kill me. So how can you say you’ll jail me until you can return me to there?” Brahani Brahi, an Eritrean who was transferred to Holot, said the facility wasn’t better than Saharonim and that he did not want to return.

MK Michal Roisin (Meretz), the head of the Migrant Workers Committee, said Tuesday at the demonstration that she was there to protest “a law that prevents asylum-seekers in Israel from attaining their basic right to dignity.

There are people living here with no future, no hope and no date of release. This is not a solution for them or for us.”

MK Shimon Ohayon (Likud Beytenu), also a member of the committee, took a different stance, saying that the protest march was “the product of left-wing activist organizations that want to make Israel a country of infiltrators.”

He added that by his estimate, 95 percent of the migrants were illegal infiltrators and only 5% were legitimate asylum-seekers.

The crowd of around 300 people marched from the Prime Minister’s Office, past the Bank of Israel and the Foreign Ministry, to the Supreme Court and the Knesset.

They held signs reading, “We are refugees. Not criminals,” and, “We walk for freedom and humanity.” There were also placards bearing quotes from Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.

The Immigration Policy Center, an NGO, placed blame on the human rights organizations assisting the protest march, saying on Tuesday that “this march and the petition presented against the amendment before it even went into effect are examples of the depth of the contempt these organizations have for the citizens of Israel, its elected officials and the residents of south Tel Aviv.”

MK Dov Henin (Hadash) told the crowd, “I do hope that the Israeli public will get the message that first of all, they are people here. Not a threat. Not a danger to Israeli society. But actually people who are fighting for their own lives and own future.”

Henin said the decision to come to Jerusalem showed that the migrants were not making a simple escape.

“They could have come to Beersheba and disappeared all around the country,” he said. “But they decided to keep together and to protest together in order to deliver a message... that they are fighting for their status as asylum- seekers, their status as refugees.”

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