African migrants face countless struggles in Israel, from racism to discrimination to outright hatred. I’ve been reporting (for the Guardian and The National) on some of their lives when they leave the Jewish state and end up in South Sudan and across Africa.
Israel houses many African migrants in the Holot detention centre in the Negev Desert. A recent Haaretz editorial outlined the inhumanity of the situation:
The Population and Immigration Authority has begun over the past few days to inform asylum seekers held at the Holot detention facility that if they refuse to leave the country within two weeks for Uganda or Rwanda, they will be incarcerated at Saharonim Prison for an indeterminate period. This step marks the beginning of the Interior Ministry’s new deportation program, which brings to new heights the ongoing cruelty to asylum seekers, while breaking international law and principles set down by High Court of Justice rulings.
According to the new deportation policy, Israel forces asylum seekers – to whom group protection applies and therefore they may not be deported, based on the principle of non-refoulement – to leave to third countries (Rwanda or Uganda), in which their basic rights, including guarantees of their safety and liberty, are not insured.
A report by human rights organisations published in March revealed that there is real concern for the welfare and safety of the approximately 9,000 asylum seekers who have left Israel so far under the “voluntary departure” program. According to the report, some of those who have “left voluntarily” have had to return to the lawless regions they had fled, where they have been imprisoned and tortured.
In one of the hearings of the High Court – which twice struck down amendments to the law on illegal entry to Israel, rejecting the principle that a person can be incarcerated without due process – the state denied the claim that the intent behind the detention facilities was to break the spirit of the asylum seekers so they would leave the country.
The new deportation plan lets the cat out of the bag. The state intends to exert unlimited pressure on the asylum seekers to send them on their way, without caring what happens to them and flouting international law, Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, and refugee treaties to which Israel is a signatory.
The threat to lock up asylum seekers who Israel wants to deport at Saharonim Prison for an undetermined period not only constitutes abuse, both morally and legally, of a helpless population; it also spits in the face of the High Court and callously ignores its rulings.
About six weeks ago, the Be’er Sheva District Court denied a petition by human rights groups against the deportation and incarceration of asylum seekers who refuse to leave the country. Judge Eliahu Bitan ruled that the petition was premature because no one had yet been incarcerated. In light of the increasing pressure on asylum seekers and the state’s determination to adhere to its illegal policy, the courts could be the last barrier to a fundamental breach of the rule of law, human rights and democracy.
But even before it comes to that, Interior Minister Silvan Shalom and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein can stop the persecution and abuse of the asylum seekers.
I recently interviewed an African migrant, via email, and the full transcript of our conversation appears below. His story is repeated thousands of times across Israel:
– Please tell me briefly your personal story and how you ended up in Holot, how long you’ve been there etc?
My name is Adil Aldao, I am from Sudan, Darfur. I have been in Israel since 2010. I came to Israel through Sinai. It took me three weeks to get into Israel. Upon my arrival into Israel through the Egyptian border, an Israeli soldier caught me and held me in Saharonim prison (a place where newcomers or newly interned are held for different period of time from one month up to two years). After a month in Saharonim I was dumped into a poor neighbourhood, in Tel Aviv, like the rest of asylum seeker here with no proper documents. I got a visa but wasn’t allowed to work and had no help from the government. I used to sleep at Levinski Park in South Tel Aviv in the middle of winter for four months, where I had to work black jobs to afford some money for renting. During this time I bear the hardship of finding food for survival and work for money for rental.
Years I was living in Tel Aviv before I got summoned to the concentration camp Holot where I am staying now and it’s been the hardest time in my life experience. In those years some Knesset members alongside South Tel Aviv citizens revolt against us (African refugees) in massive, racist demonstrations. During this year African asylum seeker have faced so many verbal and physical attacks. One of the common verbal insults was from the MP Miri Regev which refer to African refugees as a cancer and infiltrators from the former minister of interior. There are so many discriminatory attacks we have heard such as black nasty, murderers, work immigrations, or even physical attack on the streets.
In the beginning of 2014 I was sent to Holot for indefinite period of time and I am staying in Holot for over a year.
– Why did you leave Sudan?
I left Sudan because of the genocide in Darfur which left over 4,000 dead and millions including me fleeing the tragedy to save their lives.
In 2003, my village, Golo, was destroyed by the government supported Janjaweed militia because it was a Fur Tribe village (it has since been attacked many more times. Whenever people move back to the village it is attacked. The last attack was January 2015, here is what I wrote about the situation of my family). I had to move to the neighbouring villages to save my life. A few times after they attacked the village where I was I had to move to Nyala city to try to save my life from the new attacks. A few months after, the militia attacked the Nyala city and I had to move to Khartoum to escape the violence against my tribe. When I was in Khartoum, I was studying and working in the market at the same time. Darfuri in Khartoum were the target of the government and they arrested me in 2008 because of my ethnicity. They brought me to an unknown place and they tied me up and then hit me in a really violent way. They beat me for three days and they asked me over and over why I helped the anti-government rebels in the Justice and Equality Movement. I told my attackers truthfully that I was not helping the JEM. They took everything I had on me. After 3 days, my cousin paid 3000 Sudanese Pounds for my release. But I knew I was susceptible to get arrested again because of my ethnicity. In 2010, the government ordered me to join the army of Sudanese forces to fight in Darfur, Nubba Mountain or the Blue Nile against my own peole; I refused to do. Because of this, I was not able to continue to study anymore, I couldn’t find work, and I was suscepted. The government considered me as a rebel so my life was in danger and that’s the reasons why I fled my own country in 2010.
– What are the conditions like inside Holot? How do you interact with other African refugees and guards?
The conditions are intolerable because the main reason they built it is to kill people spiritually and torture us mentally. Many have mental disorder as a result of it.
In term of food we have a big problem. What they provide lacks basic nutrition and does not suffice. Furthermore we are not allowed to bring anything from the outside. As a matter of fact we smuggle food in order to survive and if they find out anything that was smuggled in, immediately they confiscate it, and who was caught smuggling or have smuggled staff will meet punishment by transferring him to another prison which is more closed.
There is no medical service. Imagine over 2,000 inmate are now held in Holot but we don’t have even an ambulance for emergency. At 10.00 pm we all locked up in our sections. So if there is any accident we just have to wait till the morning. And the new law says if anyone is in difficult condition of sickness the authorities have the right to release them to avoid their responsibility. However, even if the patient in critical condition gets released he ain’t got money for the treatment and this sounds to me like they are sending people to die away from Holot. Holot is just a ghetto, the only different is that they don’t kill us directly; they kill us spiritually or send people to die anywhere by so called “voluntary return”.
Education; no education in Holot, we have imagery classes without teachers. There are no programs that could benefit us in the future.
Holot was built to make our life miserable to leave, but there is one fact they don’t understand; my life and my family’s lives are in danger, the thing is that if I return back to Sudan our family is endangered and will face indefinite jail. We don’t have so much interaction with authority of Holot, because they are here to make your life hard or unbearable so that you can leave the country. One example I experienced one day was when I went to the immigration offices to take permission to go out, they refused to give permission even for one day. I told them ‘this is my right’ you set it yourself; their response was you have no right here in Israel but to leave where you came from. This is a kind of humiliation.
– Why do you think Israel locks up so many African refugees in Holot?
Israel is using Holot as a method to force people to leave while they can’t be deported to their home country such as people from Darfur.
– How do you think the Israeli population views African refugees and why?
The government has created a bad image of African refugees as bad, murder, thieves, diseases, nasty and so on. Most Israelis are brain washed by what they hear from the media. Few of them understand the issue of refugees but they are powerless to help.
– What is your ideal situation, would you like to live in Israel? If so, what would kind of work would you be doing?
I came to Israel asking for help but Israel didn’t help me. Instead of treading me as human being with dignity and basic rights I have been treated as a criminal. If it depends on me I wouldn’t stay in Israel, not even for one day. The only reason I am here is the current humanitarian situation in Darfur and risk of being killed or tortured if I return. My ideal situation is I am buried in Holot, my future is buried in Holot, my freedom is buried in Holot, and my dignity has been taken away from me in my own country and where I find myself today. My brain is frozen from the mental torture, the uncertainty of my future, when and how the situation would favour me. From imprisonment in Israel or death in Darfur. My legs are paralysed in researching life and dignity. I have no idea what to do.
– Do you fear being sent back to Sudan or somewhere else in Africa?
If there is country in Africa or anywhere else to safeguard me with legal documents, a country that guarantees not to deport me, a country that would protect me with no fear at all, I will go. I fear of being sent to where my life is in danger like Rwanda/Uganda where there is no clear agreement of accepting refugees.
– What do you think of Israel itself due to your situation?
From the history of Jews and in the honour of hHolocaust survivors, Israel shouldn’t treat refugees this way. Migrants, refugees and a different culture are not a threat to any nation. Israel is morally obligated to welcome strangers; Israel is morally obligated to show compassion to genocide survivors. According to my current situation and the international convention, Israel is not following the Refugee Convention and it is brutally violating refugees’ rights.
– Do you know Africans who have been in Israel and now live in South Sudan?
I know some people have left but I am not in contact with them as they are not in stable situations in Rwanda Uganda, or South Sudan and most of them made their ways to other countries.