In Tel Aviv, Holot, reactions mixed on fateful High Court decision on migrants

“They now understand that they can stay here and I don’t see any of them deciding to leave on their own now,” Tel Aviv city councilman says.

Eritrean migrants in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Eritrean migrants in Tel Aviv.
News of the High Court of Justice’s decision on the anti-infiltration law caused a stir in the Holot detention center Tuesday night, a detainee from Sudan told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
The High Court decision – which ruled that holding migrants for up to 20 months is disproportionate and ordered the release of those held for over a year – was met with a guarded optimism, the detainee said, adding that many said they’d believe it when they saw it.
“Yesterday we heard about the decision on the radio and TV, but people here aren’t sure what will happen or if they’ll be released. They say they’ll wait till they get out to know it’s real,” said Anwar Suliman, a 36-year-old Darfur native who has been detained in Holot for the past year and a half.
Suliman added that even those who believed they would be released knew that new detainees would replace them, and that regardless, the African migrant community in Israel had seen two other High Court decisions strike down the anti-infiltration law, only for the government to pass amended versions of the bill.
Still, he said, whatever hap - pens, “we have to accept all of the decisions of the government and the court.”
He added that once he was released for good – most likely within the next 15 days – he would try to enroll in school here, and didn’t see a need to relaunch the migrant protests in which he has played a prominent role in recent years.
The High Court decision was a partial victory for the migrant community and the Israeli NGOs that filed the petition against the anti-infiltration law last December, in that the court temporarily limited the length of detention at Holot to 12 months, and ruled that all those who had been detained in the facil - ity for over a year – around 1,200 detainees – must be released within 15 days.
However, the court also ruled that the holding facility itself was constitutional, striking down the section of the petition that took issue with jailing asylum seekers in the first place.
The latest version of the law, which passed in December 2014, stated that the maximum time African migrants could be held at the Saharonim detention facility was three months, and that at the Holot “open” detention center, the limit was 20 months. A previous version allowed the state to keep migrants who illegally crossed into Israel jailed at Saharonim for up to a year before releasing them to Holot, where they are allowed to go out during the daytime. Previous versions of the bill also required detainees to sign in three times a day at Holot, whereas the present version only requires a single daily check-in.
At full capacity, the Holot detention center can house about 3,000 detainees.
Even with Tuesday’s court decision, migrants without asylum status are still not legally allowed to work in Israel.
According to figures from the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority, there were around 42,000 illegal African migrants in the country as of March, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan. The actual number is widely believed to be much higher.
Following the High Court ruling, residents of south Tel Aviv held a protest in the Neveh Sha’anan area Tuesday night, calling for the migrants’ deportation.
One of those who took part was Shefi Paz, a south Tel Aviv resident who has taken a leading role in residents’ protests against the migrant community and government policies on immigration.
Paz described the morning-after feeling as “pretty awful.” She said she had expected the law to be canceled altogether or left as-is, but that this “halfway decision is worse.”
In the most immediate sense, she said, there is the issue of the 1,000 to 1,200 men who will be making their way back to south Tel Aviv from Holot in the coming days. Paz said this would include a number of protest leaders, and that many in south Tel Aviv feared this could mean a return of the African migrant protest movement from last year.
“With them coming back from Holot, they have a feeling of victory on their side, victory in their struggle, while for us, we’re just pushed more and more to the side,” she said, adding that the feeling of security for residents would continue to decline.
She said she was happy with the court’s ruling that Holot was constitutional. The only issue there, she said, is that there aren’t another 20 facilities like it in the country, and that “regardless, it’s clear that they [the High Court] don’t care about south Tel Aviv.”
Mutasim Ali, whom Israeli media have called “the leader of the African migrant movement,” had a more positive response to the ruling, even if his feelings were mixed.
“It’s great news, first of all – what will happen is that people will be released in the next few weeks. But the problem is, those people will be replaced with new ones,” he said. “I’m also afraid that the government will expand the facilities [at Holot].”
As the government is now tasked with making changes to the law over the next six months, Ali said that he and other activists would try to work with Knesset members from all different parties to “find a real solution [to the migrant issue] other than detention, which is not a solution for the asylum-seekers.”
Whatever success they might have at the Knesset, Ali admits that there is a great deal of work left to do with the public, whose opinion on African asylum-seekers, in his estimation, is “very, very negative.”
“We need to work very hard to convince the public, and then maybe the Knesset,” he said.
Tel Aviv City Councilman Shlomo Maslawi, a resident of the Hatikva neighborhood and a long-time organizer of local protests against the African migrants’ presence, described the court’s decision as “awful,” saying it struck a serious blow to the country’s ability to deter future migrants from illegally entering the country – a level of deterrence he said was far too low to begin with.
“This will give them more legitimacy to be here. Back when they could be kept in Holot for 20 months, it didn’t deter them; now that it’s down to half of that, it’ll help keep them here [in Israel].”
The policy of long-term detention in Holot was originally meant as a negative incentive to deter future migrants from coming to the country illegally, the idea being that if those who were coming solely to work knew they’d be jailed for well over a year and unable to work, they would be less likely to come. It was also intended to encourage migrants already in the country to return to their home countries or leave for a third country.
In Maslawi’s view, that’s much less likely now: “They now understand that they can stay here, and I don’t see any of them deciding to leave on their own now.”
Like others in south Tel Aviv, he saw the court’s decision as bypassing the wishes of the local residents and of the politicians they had elected.
“This is the third time that they have overturned a government decision made by the people that the public chose to lead them,” he said. “We didn’t elect the judges, they’re just a small clique of people that doesn’t live in south Tel Aviv and is totally cut off from what is happening.”