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Portraits: Detained African asylum seekers in Israel

The faces and stories of African asylum seekers indefinitely detained at ‘Holot,’ Israel’s new ‘open’ prison.

Project by: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org, Hotline for Refugees and Migrants

Detainees at the Holot ‘open’ prison. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

This portrait series was taken outside of the Holot prison for African asylum seekers in Israel’s Negev desert. Israeli authorities refer to Holot as an ‘open facility’ because its detainees can leave for a few hours at a time. Prior to their transfer to Holot on December 12 and 13, 2013, all the subjects photographed were held under administrative detention in the “Saharonim” and “Ketsiot” Israeli prisons for periods of more then 18 months. Under current Israeli law, their only hope for release is if they agree to be deported back to their home countries, from which they fled.

The prison currently holds several hundred asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, many of whom are victims of torture, kidnapping and trafficking through the Sinai desert. Holot is jointly run by the Israeli Prison Service and Interior Ministry and has strict rules and regulations, all of which carry severe punishments including transfer to other prisons. The Israeli government has publicized plans to expand Holot to hold more then 3,000 asylum seekers by the end of the year. The Interior Ministry has begun issuing summons to asylum seekers in Tel Aviv, ordering them to present themselves at Holot within 30 days.

These are their stories in their own words.

Read +972’s full coverage of African asylum seekers in Israel

Araya Fishazion

I am 19 years old. In 2012 I escaped from Eritrea to Ethiopia. I stayed there in a refugee camp for a month. From there I continued to Sudan and arrived to Sinai with a group of people. I paid $3,500 (to smugglers) and entered to Israel on June 4, 2012. Everyone else who arrived with me was released in June 2012.

Araya Fishazion, from Eritrea, 1.5 years in Saharonim prison.



I am 22 years old, born in Gezira, Sudan. I have been imprisoned for a year and three months. I don’t know why. My brother is a political activist with the opposition group fighting against the government of Sudan. The Sudanese security forces came to look for him. When they didn’t find him they arrested me instead. I was imprisoned for a year and a month. I came to Israel to ask for protection but they imprisoned me for a longer time here than I was in prison in Sudan. I am asking for my freedom.

G.H.I.Y, from Gezira, Sudan, on year and three months in Saharonim prison.



I am 38 years old, married and a father of two children. I was born in Niala, South Darfur. My father was murdered during an attack on our village in 2003. We had to run away and seek refuge in the “Kalma” refugee camp. My mother, wife and children still live there until today. I miss them very much and I don’t know what their situation is. I came to Israel to seek protection but I was imprisoned. I have been in prison for almost two years. I don’t want to be in prison any more.

A.A.M.S, from Niala, South Darfur, almost two years in Saharonim prison.


Solomon Hagos

I was a soldier in Eritrea. During my military service I was sentenced to three years in prison without committing a crime. I succeeded to escape from prison after four months. I joined a group of 80 people who escaped from Sudan to Sinai. After we gave the money to the smugglers they told us it’s dangerous to depart for Israel now. We waited another week. There was a girl there who the Bedouin called and told her they wanted to talk to her; when she came back she told me she was raped. Afterwards they wanted to take another girl aside but I argued with them. After a week all the 80 people were released but the Bedouin kept me with them in the desert for another 11 days.

Solomon Hagos, from Eritrea, two years in Saharonim prison.



I am 26 years old from Niala, Darfur. I came to Israel in 2011 after I fleeing the war in Sudan. In Sudan there is great oppression against the people. The Janjaweed militias rule with terror and fear. In one Janjaweed attack on my village my cousin was murdered and I was shot four times; only by luck I survived. I came to Israel to seek protection. If I could go back to Sudan I would but we have many problems there. I have been imprisoned for 16 months. Since I was arrested I don’t know the whereabouts of my family, I don’t know what happened to them. All I know is that they were attacked by the Janajaweed and I haven’t heard anything from them since.

S.Y.A.J, from Niala, Darfur, 16 months in Saharonim prison.


Malik Grezgiher

I was kidnapped in Sinai for a month and a half and I paid $3,200 to get released. I was in Saharonim prison for a year and a half and then I was moved to Holot. I don’t know the whereabouts of my family and I don’t have any way to contact them. My father died and I escaped from Eritrea so they wouldn’t draft me to the army. I escaped through Sudan in 2012. There is no difference between Holot and Saharonim. People are losing their minds here. Ever since I arrived to Holot’ I haven’t left since I don’t know anyone in Israel.

Malik Grezgiher, from Eritrea, a year and a half in Saharonim prison.


Zerei Gebresilasi

I can’t fall asleep at night. There are people who have gone crazy here. In Saharonim at least you know that you have to stay in one place and you can’t get out. Here, they give you the option to leave but they tell you that you must come back.

Zerei Gebresilasi, from Eritrea, two years in Saharonim prison.


Merhawi, from Eritrea, two years, in Saharonim prison.


Yunas, from Ertirea, two years in Saharonim prison.


Haben, from Eritrea, two years in Saharonim prison


Abadom Girogis, from Eritrea, two years in Saharonim prison.


Berihu Fssheye, from Eritrea, two years in Saharonim prison.

‘This is not a life’: A journey to Israel’s ‘open’ detention center
Refugees: The dark side of Israel’s economy
150 imprisoned African asylum seekers start hunger strike 

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    1. “People are losing their minds here.”

      “I can’t fall asleep at night. There are people who have gone crazy here. In Saharonim at least you know that you have to stay in one place and you can’t get out. Here, they give you the option to leave but they tell you that you must come back.”

      A series of cases of two years at Saharonim, now at Holot. This is why the High Court ordered Saharonim closed 9-0, disregarded by the Knesset in the fictive open prison of Holot. A lot rides on the High Court now. For Israel and these men.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      “I came to Israel to seek protection” from danger while leaving my wife and children behind [in danger?]. Yeah. Ok. Very credible.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ginger Eis

        The only way to determine the credibility of his claims is through a series of official hearings – at least two – in which he (a) tells his story as he sees fit and (b) is examined, cross-examined and answers ALL the questions put to him based on his own narrative and independent sources. After the first hearing the information he provided regarding himself, his background, his family, country of origin, educations/profession/work, etc., his associations, political activities, dates and places of such activities, political imprisonments, date and places of such imprisonments, religon, ethnic group, etc., will be investigated (and it is not difficult to do that. sometimes a story told by a refugees is shown to be manifestly false because of internal contradictions and inconsistencies, or by fact-checking it e.g. via google, etc.). The aspirant-refugee has the obligation to cooperate, answer all questions put to- and provide all information demanded of him. If he is lying, he won’t even survive the first rigorous interview and his application will promptly be rejected. Both the administrative- and judicial appeals may last less than 4-weeks. Using the law to solve the problem is not only cheaper for Israel, but will provide her the umbrella of legitimacy in her handling of African refugees and saves her from the image of lawlessness and racism. The way these Africans are SOMETIMES being treated on the street by a mob of ordinary Israelis shouting things like ni*** makes me feel literarily seriously ill. This is not who we are – as a people.

        Reply to Comment
    3. david gold, esq.

      Your article distorts the truth. These are illegal economic migrants, not asylum seekers. You know it, they know it and everyone else knows it. Lying is not a good way to advance your cause.
      Israel has a right to control its borders just like any other country in the world.

      Reply to Comment
      • Then let the asylum hearings begin.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ginger Eis

        David, you wrote “(…). You know it, they know it and everyone else knows it. (…)”. I also see that you attach “esquire” to your name indicating that you have at least gone through law school. If that is truly the case, you must also know that for us jurists, there is only one way to determine what is legally true, i.e. Due Process Of Law. As a jurist I assume you understand what that means. If, as in the present case, due process has not been followed, the jurist CANNOT know the truth. On the same ground, a law-student will not even dare make the same dumb conclusion you made. Basically you claim to know something you don’t actually know and that’s just not honest – unless you use your feelings and emotions to determine what is true and what is not (something someone who has passed bar-exam will never dare do).

        Reply to Comment
    4. mcohen

      they are all moslems seeking refuge in a jewish state while moslem countries turn them away.

      Reply to Comment