The pointless cruelty of Holot

I'm back! Unfortunately, the new year won't begin with uplifting content-quite the contrary, actually.

This post will primarily focus on issues related to asylum seekers in Israel. If you haven't already read my prior post on this topic, you should check it out: I assume some degree of familiarity with the issues.

Yesterday, I traveled with a group of activists and asylum seekers to the Holot detention center. An ad hoc group goes for a few hours once a month, usually on Saturdays, to visit the thousands of asylum seekers housed there in the hopes of keeping their spirits up. This is critically important, perhaps even literally life-saving, because of the unique purpose of the facility.

To understand why Holot exists, and why visitors and contact with the outside world is so important, a quick refresher on the demographic and legal situation of the asylum seekers. There are about 50,000 asylum seekers in Israel, almost entirely seeking refuge from the brutal dictatorship in Eritrea or the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Under international law, it's illegal to deport someone to their country of citizenship if they have a valid fear of persecution, which is certainly the case for people fleeing Eritrea or Sudan. Host countries have to provide temporary protected status as long as the threat remains in place. However, it's not illegal for countries to facilitate the "voluntary return" of an asylum seeker who wishes to return to their country of citizenship despite the risks. For a variety of reasons, most of which seem pretty damn racist to an outside observer, Israel refuses to process their refugee applications, but also wants them gone. But it's also very expensive to process and deny refugee claims, which would legally permit deportation. This is where Holot comes in.

The goal of Holot is one that sounds pretty familiar to an observer of the nastier side of American immigration politics: "self-deportation." The theory is simple: change the set of incentives by making life in Israel miserable, and people will sign papers authorizing their removal, regardless of the risks. In order to accomplish this, the government began summoning adult male asylum seekers to Holot, beginning with those who had been in Israel the longest. Effectively, they disrupted the lives of those who had been in Israel the longest and theoretically had the most stability and the most to lose-jobs, families, etc. Initially, the plan was to require three year stays, but after some litigation, the government's only allowed to keep people in for a year before it must release them. The goal, however, is that most will leave Israel before the year is up.

Where exactly do they end up? The government built a large facility, capable of housing over 3,000 people, in a prison compound in the middle of the Negev Desert near the Egyptian border. Because you can't be sent to prison in Israel without being convicted of a crime, the facility is technically not a prison: it's an "open detention center." In some respects, it's not a prison. You can bring some of your possessions (including, perhaps most importantly, cell phones and non-uniform clothing), there's Internet access, and most importantly, you can enter and leave at will during daylight hours. However, in many respects, it's very prison-like. For one, it's run by the Israel Prison Service. Certainly, it resembles a prison in appearance: long rows of generic pre-fab buildings, surrounded by ribbons of razor wire and guard towers.

The guard house at the Holot entrance, at dusk

The guard house at the Holot entrance, at dusk

The internal environment is also fairly prison-like, according to those I talked to: lots of barbed wire, barred windows, and remotely operated doors that lock down at night. Living conditions are pretty dire. The food is inedible, there's no on-site doctor and very limited access to medical care, and until recently, there was no heat or air-conditioning in the housing units, which are absolute essentials in a desert environment. Detainees are permitted to have reading materials in any language but Hebrew; the government doesn't want them learning Hebrew, because it could conceivably bolster their connection to Israel. While detainees are allowed to leave to do what they wish during the daytime and receive a small stipend of 16 shekels, or about 4 dollars (not 1 dollar-my apologies for the typo), per day to cover personal care items and transportation, this is something of a false promise: the nearest town of any size, Beer Sheva, is about an hour away by bus, and the round-trip bus fare is 40 shekels.

Nothing around for miles

Nothing around for miles


A few of the detainees own cars (remember, they're starting with the most well-established asylum seekers), which they're allowed to park on a vacant lot outside of the facility, but they can't go far; if they're late, they can get placed in solitary confinement. The rest of the detainees are stuck. There's nothing around but empty desert for miles, except, apparently, a cow or chicken farm, judging by the smell that overwhelmed us whenever the wind blew in the right direction. A few of the detainees run small food and drink stands in the parking lot in partnership with non-incarcerated asylum seekers, but the Prison Service shuts them down periodically.

The parking lot, with a few of the food stands.

The parking lot, with a few of the food stands.

So the alternative to Holot is voluntary departure. What that means is that detainees at Holot are periodically presented with paperwork allowing for voluntary departure to their home country or to an unnamed third country (usually either Rwanda or Uganda) that has agreed to take them temporarily. Those who agree to voluntary departure are taken to the airport and put on a plane, only receiving their passport, ticket, and a voluntary departure stipend upon boarding. Returning to the home country is borderline suicidal, but some do it anyway, presumably out of despair. There have been many reports of executions of asylum seekers who return to Sudan or Eritrea. Voluntary departure to a third country is at least somewhat safer, at least temporarily. However, the situation of asylum seekers who depart to a third country is still precarious: the departure agreement doesn't include any permanent status in the third country, and asylum seekers are sometimes deported from the third country back to their home countries. It's also not unheard of for asylum seekers to accept voluntary departure to a third country, only to instead receive a ticket back to their home countries instead. So third-country departure isn't safe either. The key, then, is to help asylum seekers by making their time at Holot tolerable so that they don't accept the self-deportation proposal.

So this is where the activist group that I joined comes in. As I said, they go once a month, usually on Saturdays, and spend about 3 hours in the small market bordering the facility. They're here to talk, to provide moral support, to remind these men that there are people on the outside who care about them and want them to resist the pressure they're under and stay in Israel. I joined them this week.

I felt a bit apprehensive arriving at the facility. I'm not necessarily the most outgoing person in the world, as those who know me can attest, and it's especially difficult to be outgoing when you don't share a set of common experiences with the people to whom you're expected to be outgoing. When I used to visit incarcerated people in Alabama and Texas (which feels like a lifetime ago), I had the same problem. What do I say? "Oh, sucks you're in here?"  

As it turned out, this wasn't a problem. The thing about talking to people who have go unheard is that they mostly just want to be heard. I may not be the best at conversing with strangers, but I can sure sit and listen, and listen is mostly what I did. The stories were about as harrowing as you'd expect: I met several survivors of the Darfur genocide who had lost their families in militia attacks, a Jehovah's Witness from Eritrea who faced torture for practicing his religion, and one man who showed me his scars from where had been shot by Egyptian soldiers while trying to cross the border into Israel.

In general, the word that comes to mind when describing these men (and I think it usually does when working with asylum seekers, I think) is resilience. Some of these men were clearly responding to the traumatic experiences they'd had in unhealthy ways; the sale of alcohol is permitted (or at least tolerated) in the market, and some of the men seemed to be drinking the day away. Nevertheless, the vast majority seemed to be amazingly optimistic and productive. I met artists, photographers, and musicians. One man begged me to help him enroll in a master's degree program in economics or political science, as he'd had to leave his studies behind when he fled Sudan. 

What struck me most about the whole situation is the pointless cruelty of it all. Sure, there are detention centers for asylum seekers everywhere in the world, but according to the people with whom I traveled, Holot is unique; no other country incarcerates asylum seekers with pending claims simply to force them to leave, as opposed to incarcerating new arrivals who haven't been vetted or incarcerating individuals who are facing deportation after the denial of their claims. What's the point? Why do this?

Why resist their attempts to claim refugee status, even? There aren't even that many of them, maybe 50,000 arrivals over a period of 8 years or so. Relative to the population of Israel, or the migrant crisis that Europe's facing, it's a drop in the bucket. Israel could take in these men without breaking a sweat. It's a wealthy country, and perhaps more importantly, there's a massive infrastructure for absorbing Jewish migrants that's been largely idle since the mass migrations from the Arab world, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union. Israel's taken in hordes of poor people from the developing world. It can do it again. Contrary to the hyperbolic claims of some on the right, Israeli society can survive it. As for the other objection commonly raised-that these asylum seekers aren't Jewish, and they would pose a threat to the Jewish character of the state-I'll respond with something that one of the Israeli activists told me (and put aside the question of whether maintaining some sort of "Jewish character" is worth the suffering that pursuing that goal would cost). "What's more Jewish," he said, "than making an arduous land journey through the Sinai to Israel in search of a refuge from persecution?"