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In act of civil disobedience, 150 Sudanese refugees walk out of Israeli 'open prison'

The 150 men walk six hours through the Negev desert in bid to reach Jerusalem, are currently in Be’er Sheva and rebuffing authorities’ offer to bus them back to the ‘Holot’ open prison facility that opened late last week.

Text by Michael Omer-Man
Photos by Yotam Ronen, Oren Ziv, Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org

Sudanese refugees who left the ‘Holot’ open prison camp walked six hours through the desert to the Be’er Sheva bus station, December 15, 2013. (Photo: Activestills.org)

Roughly 150 Sudanese asylum seekers left a new ‘open prison’ and walked six hours to Be’er Sheva in a mass act of civil disobedience protesting their continued detention without trial and demanding recognition as refugees on Sunday.

The asylum seekers were transferred to the new facility, “Holot,” in recent days in line with a law passed last week. The law is an attempt by legislators to circumvent a High Court ruling, which struck down as unconstitutional a previous law that permitted the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. The new law instead authorizes their indefinite detention in “open” facilities.

Read +972’s full coverage of refugees in Israel

Most of the men have already been imprisoned for 18 to 24 months without trial.

“It’s just like a prison, only the doors are open,” a Sudanese asylum seeker at Holot told a representative of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants earlier Sunday.

He explained that the new open-door policy is meaningless when the facility is located in the middle of the desert and there’s nothing outside of the prison’s gates.

“If somebody leaves they surely won’t return,” the Sudanese man added. “It doesn’t really matter because if they catch us they’ll take us back to the previous prison. It doesn’t matter which prison you’re in.”

At 11 p.m. Sunday night the men were at the central bus station in Be’er Sheva, where it appeared they intended to spend the night for lack of better options. Earlier in the evening Immigration Authority officials attempted to convince them to return on buses to the Holot ‘open prison’ but the asylum seekers refused.

Temperatures were expected to approach freezing overnight.

Sudanese refugees who left the ‘Holot’ detention facility at the Be’er Sheva bus station, December 15, 2013. Temperatures were expected to near freezing overnight. (Photo: Activestills.org)

Under the new law Israeli authorities cannot arrest detainees from the ‘open prison’ until they have been absent from it for 48 hours.

Once they are arrested, they can be brought back to the ‘closed,’ Saharonim prison.

According to a representative of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, many of the asylum seekers have been on hunger strike for two days already. One collapsed and was brought to a hospital in Be’er Sheva.

They had originally planned to march all the way to Jerusalem. Israel and the wider Middle East are currently experiencing a massive winter storm; Jerusalem has been mostly shut down and isolated from the rest of the country for several days due heavier than normal snowfall.

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    1. The previous report said the first law had a maximum period of detention of 3 years, the second indefinite open ended, but neglected to mention the 48 wait period before rearresting (why have roll calls three times a day, as the first report says, if one is not going to immediate rearrest?).

      Threat of rearrest restricts liberty by control of the body; the new prison is still a prison. This is one strange attempt to avoid a court decision. “Guests” must be pretty fed up to walk 6 hours to, er, not escape but, er, enjoy the openness. This is an insult to the detainees and to the High Court. May the Court take the insult seriously.

      Reply to Comment
      • The 48 “grace period” is not part of the law. Seems to be their way to deal with the protest. Refugees who left the camp on Friday and returned on Saturday (didn’t sleep at the camp), for example, were transferred to Saharonim Prison as punishment.

        Reply to Comment
    2. shaun

      Is anyone else other than +972 contributors suspicious of the fact that all these “refugees” have decided on their own initiative to follow the advice of a bunch of white guys regarding civil disobedience and great photo ops?

      Reply to Comment
      • William Burns

        Damn outside agitators. . .

        Reply to Comment
    3. Kolumn9

      They should march straight to Ben Gurion and board planes back to their home countries or anywhere else but here. At best they have the right to claim humanitarian protection, which they receive, with food, heating and shelter provided to them free of charge. On what basis do they lobby my government? It is as if they think that breaking the law and illegally crossing the border gives them the right to be citizens. It doesn’t. It makes them uninvited and unwanted illegal migrants. Expel them. Now.

      Reply to Comment
      • There is an easy way out of this. Either abrogate the refugee convention or begin individual hearings to confirm/deny refugee status. This all started when the High Court said the convention disallowed expulsion absent determination hearing, irrespective of how the asylum claimants got into the country. For some reason, the Knesset and or State refused to establish hearings, perhaps in part because they would/might go through court review. Instead you get the first camp, which the Court has annulled; then the second what, halfway house in the desert, which gives the present absurdity. Stop wailing “I won’t do what the Court says” and begin hearings or abrogate the treaty.

        Abrogation will not affect other treaty signatories. The convention doesn’t say “consider Sudanese refugees only if Sudan has signed the treaty”; that would make asylum absurd. So, even forcing all Jews to be associated with the acts of Israel, which should not be the case anyhow, Jews globally are under not threatened by Israel’s abrogation. So why not abrogate and end the matter?

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Why bother abrogating a treaty that does not apply? These people can certainly claim refugee status – in Egypt or Ethiopia, which neighbor Sudan and Eritrea. Each of these people went through countries where they could seek shelter and made their way to Israel, which does not border their home countries. As such they have no claim to asylum in Israel. They came here because they can make more money here, which makes them economic migrants. If other countries in similar situations wish to be generous and go above and beyond in granting such status that is their right as sovereign states, but it has no impact at all on Israeli obligations or prerogatives.

          It is true that for the moment the High Court does not allow their deportation back to their home countries. So, they are granted shelter, food, and heat for free. Israel’s obligations are met. Israel is under no obligation to permanently accept them as legal residents or grant them the ability to work or live anywhere they choose. They are simply illegal migrants that can not yet be expelled back to their own countries. A place should be found for them in a 3rd country where they will be safe and they should be expelled to that country forthwith.

          More importantly, they are not legal residents of this country. They crossed the border illegally knowing full-well that they are unwelcome and that they are breaking the law by doing so. They have no right whatsoever to protest or lobby my government. That they do so is a travesty.

          Reply to Comment
          • No, K9, the Court said that form of entry does not remove convention right of claim to asylum, and that the State must provide individual hearing for such claims. The treaty applies in so far as the claim must be heard, or so said the Court. The State refuses to do so, instead ignoring another High Court decision by creating the farce of an open prison.

            Your phrasing (once again) annuls law to political end–a clear mark of right populism, known in many countries prior, including Germany.

            Reply to Comment
      • I agree. Other countries grant asylum to much, much larger proportions of refugees than these 50,000 Africans make up in Israel, but Israel is a Jewish separatist, segregated state and refugees don’t belong here – they should be expelled. Now. Let the world see Israel for what it is.

        Reply to Comment
        • shaun

          The treck from Sudan to Israel passes through thousands of miles of hostile country and lead them initially to Egypt where many of these refugees resided for years before they decided to make the long journey to Israel for a better paying job. Send the migrants back and let the world see them for what they really are.

          Reply to Comment
          • They were treated like shit in Egypt, so bad that they went thru the Via Dolorosa of the Bedouin-led trek through Sinai, where many died, many were tortured, on the way here. Greedy pigs – expulsion now.

            Reply to Comment
          • shaun

            If Israel is the horrible, apartheid, racist state that you always claim it is, why did these poor souls trek all the way here despite the risks? Surely if they were just desperate to get out of Egypt, choosing such a far- away land and making the arduous journey to such an evil country like Israel is superfluous. Unless these ”refugees” know something you don’t?

            Reply to Comment
          • Give them their asylum hearing.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Joel

      Well. So much for the ‘honor system’.

      Reply to Comment