Seeking Refuge


According to the HRW report, 83 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers in countries such as Norway, Switzerland, Italy and the United Kingdom were granted some protection in 2013.

Unwelcome reception

African migrants who are being held inside the Holot detention center stand at the fence as others who traveled to the site demonstrate against the detention center in the Negev Desert. (HEIDI LEVINE/SIPA/Newscom)
African migrants who are being held
inside the Holot detention center stand at the fence as others who traveled to the site demonstrate against the detention center in the Negev Desert. (HEIDI LEVINE/SIPA/Newscom)

As of late August, in addition to the approximately 2,000 Sudanese and Eritreans housed at Holot, another 1,000 were detained at the nearby Saharonim detention center, according to HRW. There are three other facilities that asylum seekers are temporarily housed in when they first arrive in Israel.

Ali has been at Holot since early May. He is the director of the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC), which aims to empower and assimilate refugees into Israeli society, and a leader among Israel’s asylum seeker population.

The organization was recently granted consultative status under the U.N. Department of Economic Social Affairs, which allows the ARDC to share and analyze information with the department.

Prior to leaving Sudan, Ali went to college to study geology. His parents, four sisters and brother currently live in a camp for displaced Sudanese people, and he speaks to them once a month or once every two months. His plan was to get refugee status in Israel and further his education, but with trouble getting that status, he has applied to two law schools in the United States.

His ultimate goal is to earn a law degree and help the oppressed population in Sudan.

Despite the United Nations’ recommendation that Ali be granted refugee status, he was called to Holot in November and arrived there in May. Frelick called the facility “a detention center in all but name.”

With the combination of geography, three daily check-ins and a nightly curfew at Holot as well as legal issues for employers hiring Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, there’s not much for those in detention to do, despite Ali’s elevated status as an activist. Ali said some are teaching English and Hebrew to other asylum seekers, but most just sleep all day.

“The worst thing is if people are getting sick,” he said. “It’s very difficult to get treatment.”

The UNHCR said in a statement that conditions at Holot, which substantially restrict the freedom and movement of the asylum seekers, are “not necessarily in line with international human rights law.”

“UNHCR would consider it timely for the government of Israel to develop alternatives to detention and alternatives to residency in Holot, in line with UNHCR’s Guidelines on Detention and Alternatives to Detention,” the statement said.

According to Ali, 4,800 asylum seekers left Israel between January and June 30. But going back, or going to a third party African country, means risking death, sometimes within hours of arriving, Siegel said.

“I have a serious problem there,” Ali said of returning to Sudan. “I don’t think I can make [it back]. Kind of suicide.”

Ali and others in his position have staged various protests in recent months, including one in late June where 1,000 immigrants marched on the Israel-Egypt border, ending with the arrest of hundreds days later, according to reports.

Above all, what Frelick and others want is an end to the wholesale detention of immigrants.

“Do a temporary protection regime, do something that basically says, ‘We recognize we can’t deport you to either of those countries,’” he said. “Allow them to work, expect them to leave when it’s safe.”

In February, the Right Now coalition sent a letter to Jonathan Schachter, Israel’s acting adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for Diaspora Affairs, citing concerns about Holot and current treatment of African asylum seekers. It was co-signed by 14 other organizations, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish Labor Committee.

“We’re trying to get the Jewish diaspora to stand up and say, ‘This is not acceptable as a population of refugees, as a country that signed the Refugee Convention that was part of the reason for the creation of the Refugee Convention.’ It’s unacceptable,” Paley said. “It’s undemocratic. It’s also not Jewish in our eyes.”

During commemorations of World Refugee Day on June 20, Right Now distributed a petition demanding the Israeli government establish a true Refugee Status Determination process and stop detaining asylum seekers without due process. The coalition will soon host screenings around the country of “African Exodus,” a documentary about African asylum seekers in Israel.

With tens of thousands more asylum seekers outside of Holot, all eyes will turn to how Israel’s government will implement this week’s High Court decision and what steps will be taken next.

“[It’s] a very small move in the direction of having possibility for a somewhat stable status for asylum seekers,” Siegel said. “Of course, without a substantial refugee status determination process there will never be permanent protection for asylum seekers.”

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  1. I agree with your respond; Refugees are living in Israel with fear and abused. The African refugees are forced to leave their countries and families, can we feel that they need to have to stay and part of the socite. If Israel can not do who will do it.

  2. Barry — thanks for commenting. I too don’t think it’s right to imply that all Israelis are callous to the refugees. I also don’t think we can ignore the impact on the residents of south Tel Aviv. It seems that everywhere in the world the needs of the most-desperate are made to be in conflict with the needs of others who are politically and economically weak.

    An approach to the refugees that allowed them to work and to offer them opportunities outside of Tel Aviv could go a long way to mitigating this reality. So could government attention to the longstanding neglect of south Tel Aviv.

    I’m less comfortable with your other statements. For instance, the statistics released by the Israeli police show that the refugees do not engage in crime more frequently than others in Israel (see here: It’s also not true that all of the refugees are Muslim; I believe that most are Christian.

    Factual matters aside, I take issue with the notion that Israel can’t afford to host others, or that because the refugees past thru Egypt on their way to Israel means that they are nothing more than “illegals.” My grandfather smuggled his way into Tel Aviv in the 1930s in violation of the law. It was the second border he’d crossed after leaving his hometown of Hamburg. Had he stayed in the Netherlands, like his father and brother did, he would have perished.

    Refugees in Egypt are treated inhumanely. At times their lives are in danger. It’s logical that some would continue to flee across another border. Given that so many in Israel share family backgrounds like my own, it stands to reason that Israel could serve as an example for how to treat those in need with dignity until they can go home. In fact I believe that this awareness is part of why the Israeli High Court twice struck down laws that imprisoned these refugees without trial.

  3. Maya thank you for your good work. The African community resource center want to see justice to the African refugees .

  4. The article is made to seem that Israeli’s are callous to the plight of these African refugees. First, what the article doesn’t say is that they are making the lives of people living in Tel Aviv miserable. The have been numerous rapes and robberies by these refugees, besides harassments in general. It’s pretty hard to be sympathetic when people experience such behaviors.

    These people crossed into Israel illegally from Egypt. You would think that illegals would stay under the radar and not cause harm to others in their host country, who never invited them to begin with.

    The illegals are Muslim. There are 57 Muslim countries they could have entered, albeit illegally. None of their religious brothers wanted them. Historically, Israel have allowed in people seeking asylum facing death in their own countries. Israeli’s are NOT insensitive to the plight of others, but nor are they stupid. If the illegals weren’t causing trouble, they would most likely be left alone.

    All that said, is there any common sense left in this world that constantly blames the victim? Israeli’s have enough issues with people trying to destroy us, should we be required to host others when they can’t be civilized? How much should a small country tolerate from people who were uninvited?

    • Hi Barry,

      You raise some interesting points but I think you miss the mark on some of them. Firstly, having lived in Tel Aviv for over a year, I can tell you that asylum seekers do not make the lives of Israelis/Jews miserable. Statistically, rape and robberies by the refugee population in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Eilat are lower than the rates of those same crimes by Israelis. According to a report by the Israeli government, the crime rate among foreigners in Israel stood at 2.24 percent in 2011 while the crime rate among the general population in Israel was 4.99 percent in 2010. While one could argue that crime is underreported within the immigrant community, if your claim that they are making the lives of those living in Tel Aviv miserable, certainly these populations being targeted would report crime.

      Secondly, it is true that Israel never invited refugees from African countries, but what county truly does “invite” refugees? The international community, and especially western countries, recognize that there are certain obligations that Western countries have to refugee populations. Namely, when refugees arrive on their borders, welcoming them in, allowing them to apply for refugee status, and properly assessing their claim. These people are facing death in their own countries and while Israel is “allowing them in,” as you say there are serious legal and ethical issues with the lives these people are allowed to live in Israel. Most countries do not accept refugees applying from Israel because Israel is seen as a viable option, meaning they can stay there and live in safety. So, even if refugees wanted to leave, most countries will not accept them until they first apply and are rejected for asylum in Israel. The problem here lies in Israel’s refusal to allow Sudanese and Eritreans to apply until 2013 and their delay in assessing refugee claims.

      I do not think Israel is the victim in this situation here. Refugees coming to Israel just want the chance to live like normal people without the threat of detainment, without their visas being stamped “not permitted to work”, and without being called infiltrators as they escape persecution in their home countries. I think if you took the time to talk to a few people you would find this to be true.


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