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On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet unanimously approved a proposal by the Interior Minister, Arye Dery, and Public Security Minister, Gilad Erdan, that seeks to shut down the Holot Detention Centre. Asylum seekers will be presented a choice to either be deported to Rwanda or be jailed indefinitely.
The 1,000 asylum seekers who currently live in the Holot facility will have until mid-March 2018 to decide where they will be moved, after which they will be deported without their consent.
The Israeli government plans to pay Rwanda $5,000 for each asylum seeker it agrees to take in and give each asylum seeker $3,500 for flights out of the country.
The Holot facility, which is located in the southern Negev desert near the Nitzana crossing on the Egyptian border, was opened four years ago. It houses only men from Eritrea and Sudan. The facility is surrounded by high fences and the men who live there are required to check in three times a day and are forbidden to work.
According to government figures, there are currently around 40,000 asylum seekers in Israel, the majority of whom, 27,500, are Sudanese. Whilst the Israeli government has been pressuring both Eritrean and Sudanese nationals to leave since their arrival, this new policy takes a far more drastic stance of “detention and deportation.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated at the weekly cabinet meeting that this policy is in accordance with the government’s third stage of asylum seeker policy, which he described as “increased removal.” This stage comes after the construction of the border fence with Egypt that has successfully removed 20,000 “infiltrators” from Israel over the past years.
It is currently unclear who the policy will be first to target. However, officials told major media sources that, at this stage, certain groups will be excluded. These groups include women and children, those who have been victims of human trafficking, and people who have requested asylum but have yet to hear a response from the Israeli government. However, it is unlikely that the requests for asylum from the Israeli government will be granted. According to the UNHCR, since 2009, only eight Eritrean and two Sudanese asylum seekers have been accepted as refugees.
Although the proposal was approved unanimously by the current cabinet, former Interior Minister Gideo Sa’ar is critical of the policy. He claims that closing Holot would be a mistake and advocates for increasing its size. Mr. Sa’ar argues that the centre acts as a disincentive for asylum seekers, “because of Holot, thousands of infiltrators have left Israel and the city centers.”
The proposal has also been met with concern by local human rights activists, who have stated the proposal violates both international and Israeli laws. The UNHCR also expressed concerns about this week’s proposal, saying that “the secrecy surrounding this policy and the lack of transparency concerning its implementation” has made it “very difficult for UNHCR to follow up and systematically monitor the situation of people relocated to these African countries.”
Even though Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, they continue to pressure asylum seekers to leave the country through restrictive laws, limits on employment and education, and the threat of arrest and detention. This policy blatantly breaches their duties as a party to the convention, and actively disregards asylum seeker’s human rights.