HOLOT, Israel — Deep into Israel’s Negev Desert, surrounded by miles of arid land, lays the Holot Detention Center for asylum-seekers. Maawiya Mohammed Adam, a 28-year-old from Sudan, who fled his war-torn homeland and entered Israel in 2008, has been detained in Holot for the past six months. For non-Jews, Adam said, seeking asylum in the Jewish state is a bad idea.
“If I was a Jew, by now I would have very good conditions and Israel would recognize me and give me the status that I deserve, but because I am Muslim and black — my fate is suffering,” said Adam, standing outside Holot, under the scorching summer sun. “Israel is concerned about not having Muslims and black people in its community, and that’s the main reason I am not very optimistic about being in Israel.”
Ninety-two percent of the estimated 50,000 asylum-seekers in Israel are Muslims or Christians from Sudan and Eritrea. They entered the country illegally between 2006 and 2012 through the then porous, now barricaded border with Egypt.
These asylum-seekers — though numbered in the thousands — are just a fragment of the growing issue of displaced people worldwide.
According to a new report by the United Nations refugee agency released on June 20, World Refugee Day, 51.2 million people were forcibly displaced by the end of 2013, six million more than the 45.2 million reported in the previous year.
While Jews in general are entitled to full citizen rights in Israel based on the Law of Return, non-Jewish Africans pose a demographic challenge, according to leading Israeli politicians. In 2012, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said African “infiltrators” flooding the country are an existential threat to Israel’s Jewish identity. Former Interior Minister Eli Yishai was quoted saying he would “make the lives of infiltrators bitter until they leave.”
Established by Jewish refugees from European and Arab countries, Israel was one of the first nations to sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, the key legal document defining the notion of a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states. According to the Convention, the refugee determination process should be applied regardless of race, religion or state of origin.
Israel, however, considers Sudan an enemy state, so it does not review Sudanese nationals’ asylum applications nor does it deport applicants and send them back to Sudan. Eritreans are protected from deportation due to the grave human rights violations by the regime in their country, but of the 35,000 currently in Israel, less than a hundred have been granted refugee status.
Instead, Sudanese and Eritreans are either given short-term visas — without work permits and medical benefits — or ordered to report to detention centers like the one in Holot.
“If only 5,000 or 10,000 of them will stay here, it would be difficult, but we would be able to live with that. It will no longer be a strategic threat to the state of Israel,” said professor Arnon Soffer, head of the Department of Geostrategy at the University of Haifa in north Israel. “But we must do anything possible to bring the numbers down.”
Professor Soffer headed a committee commissioned by an Interior Minister to provide recommendations on how to respond to the challenge posed by the African asylum-seekers.
The committee suggested implementing a strict deterrence policy to persuade the “infiltrators” to leave Israel voluntarily. Its recommendations include enforcing severe punishments on Israeli businesses that employ Africans, finding third-party countries who would agree to take the asylum-seekers, and paying 3,500 dollars to any Sudanese or Eritrean that agrees to leave Israel.
“The tragic situation in Africa is still happening,” said professor Soffer. “They have water shortages, horrible corruption and difficult, basic living conditions. People will continue trying to leave in any way possible. We must signal them that we will not be able to absorb any more.”
In recent months, the Israeli immigration authority has increasingly ordered asylum-seekers to report to the Holot detention center. Those not yet detained, like Suliman Walyaldin, a Sudanese living in Tel Aviv, fear their day will come.
“The government wants to build a Jewish country and for me I am not Jewish,” said Walyaldin, who came to Israel in 2012 and now has to renew his visa every few months while living without a work permit or medical benefits. “The government does not want us here because in Jewish religion it is not allowed to marry anyone outside your religion and if we stay here many people they want to marry Eritreans or Sudanese.”
The claims of religion-based discrimination would have been undermined if Israel had a clear refugee policy. But it doesn’t, and that leaves the asylum-seekers in limbo, according to Walpurga Englbrecht, Representative for the United Nations refugee agency in Israel.
“Israel has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention — it was also one of its drafters — but it has not legislated or adopted national refugee law where it has incorporated its obligation arising from the 1951 Refugee Convention,” said Englbrecht. “A law provides you with a regulatory framework so you know if these persons come in — these are their rights, these are their obligations. If you don’t have this regulated, it is all in the grey area, so as a refugee or an asylum-seeker you are less protected.”
In most other countries, 82 percent of Eritrean asylum-seekers and 68 percent of Sudanese are granted refugee status, according to United Nations data.
To mark World Refugee Day and raise awareness of the struggle of millions around the world, some 2,400 Sudanese and Eritrean Holot detainees prepared a short video in which they demand basic refugee rights. Meanwhile, asylum-seekers continue to be ordered to Holot, and the number of those granted refugee status remains stagnant.