Israel releases hundreds of refugees from desert jail

Israeli Interior Minister Silvan Shalom bans African refugees from Tel Aviv and resort city of Eilat

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

African refugees walk out of the Holot detention center in the Negev desert in southern Israel, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015.

Israel's Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the release of African refugees from a desert jail. Seven hundred and fifty people were released in small groups with 428 scheduled to be freed on Wednesday, the prison service spokeswoman said.

The refugees were held for more than a year at a detention center in the Negev desert.

More than 45,000 African migrants and asylum seekers are currently in Israel, according to the Israeli Interior Ministry. Most come from impoverished countries such as Eritrea and Sudan.

Many of the refugees claim to be fleeing conflict and persecution and are seeking official refugee status. Israel says they are merely “economic migrants” and "illegal migrants" in search of work whose swelling numbers threaten the country's Jewish character. 

The release of the African refugees on Tuesday came with added restrictions on them which not only mean they are legally restricted from working but are also not allowed to go to the cities of Tel Aviv or Eilat, where the largest communities of Africans are located and there are greater work opportunities.

Interior Minister Silvan Shalom offered no justification for banning the refugees from travelling to the cities, apart from saying on Facebook that it was "the first part of resolving the issue."

After leaving the detention center the refugees waited at bus stops for rides and wondered where they would live, the news agency Agence France-Presse reported.

"I have no place to go. I don't know anyone. I have no money. I don't know what to do," said Hussein, one of the released refugees.

Refugee policy in Israel

In September 2014, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that during the first part of the year Israeli authorities had employed an "unlawful coercion policy" to force almost 7,000 African refugees to leave Israel, putting them at risk of imprisonment and torture upon returning to their home countries.

The Israeli government has defended its policies by stating that it cannot take in the refugees while also preserving the Jewish character of the state.

Since its creation in 1948, Israel has recognised less than 200 asylum seekers as refugees, according to human rights groups.  

TRTWorld and agencies