At ten am Taj receives a phonecall. It is Adam informing him that their two friends Mutasim and Salah went to the Israeli Ministry of Interior to renew their three month ‘conditional release’ visa earlier that morning. Only instead of after a long wait outside (waiting rooms are not for illegal infiltrators) they received not a visa, but a letter inviting them to the newly built detention centre in the Israeli desert next month. Taj hangs up the phone. Only when I ask how Adam is doing does he tell me, adding the small detail that his own visa expires on the 21st of January.
In his final year of an undergraduate degree,Taj is but the second Darfuri destined to complete a university education in Israel and now whilst studying for his exams, he has to run around arranging documents that may ensure he can remain out of indefinite captivity long enough to finish studying. It is almost six years since he crossed the border into Israel seeking refuge from the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. In all this time Israel has shied away from putting in place any lasting solution for the Africans, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, who sought refuge there. Opting instead to create uncertainty and fear, as a part of its policy of deterrence.
As recent ago as September 2013 things were brightening up for the 55.000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel. The Israeli High Court of Justice had just ruled the most recent policy of deterrence invention: the anti-infiltration law, unconstitutional. The disbanding of this law meant the release of all 1750 asylum seekers, incarcerated in a closed detention centre for illegally crossing the Israeli border since the summer of 2012. Inmates whose previous only get out-of-detention-free-card was to return back to the countries which had persecuted them, now deserved to have their cases reviewed within 90 days or go free.
So faced with having to release African asylum seekers into Israel, the Israeli government put into quick motion the building of a new facility, the Holot detention centre. “Building a new detention centre when the other detention centre is deemed unconstitutional, how does this work?” you may wonder. Well there are two main differences between this centre and the last, Netanyahu would answer. The new and improved centre is an ‘open facility’ meaning people are free to roam the desert by day as long as they are back in time for role call three times throughout the day. And secondly, the plan this time is to round as many other Eritrean and Sudanese living for the largest part in the cities of Tel Aiv, Arad, Eilat, Ashdod and Haifa to also include them in incarceration.
We discuss the issue and decide it is best for Taj to try and renew his visa as soon as possible and get to the Ministry of Interior the following morning. It is a bleak prospect, the experience of renewing your three month visa is everything but pleasant. On a previous occasion, when both our visas were expiring simultaneously, we decided it would be a bonding experience to go together to renew them. Here I witnessed the shouting, the segregation, the humiliation and the confusion that Taj has to go through in order to receive the only refugee right that Israel will grant him. Taj was sent away three times by the Ministry of Interior. “Come back tomorrow at seven am, maybe then it will be ready.” However, the next day Taj would realise that the Ministry does not open until eight, leaving him without a valid visa for an additional day. That is a serious risk which he cannot take in the current climate where immigration police are everywhere and ruthless.
This time is sadly no different. After waiting forty-five minutes, he is referred to a note in Hebrew which explains that this office can no longer help him. Now only three places in the entire country issue visas to illegal migrants under collective protection. What is more these offices are only open two days a week for two hours, meaning that waiting patiently will not guarantee you a turn. As today is Tuesday and the next office day is Sunday, Taj is forced to spend the next four days without a valid visa avoiding migration police. “Lucky I have to study for exams I guess,” he adds ironically.
The past month has been epic in terms of African refugee protest, starting at the end of December when detained asylum seekers started a 100km ‘March for Freedom’ towards Jerusalem. The Sudanese and Eritrean community around the rest of the country galvanised in support of these demonstrators and at the height of their month of demonstrations almost 30.000 people went on strike and took part in protests around the Holocaust memorial on Rabin Square. Whilst the work of these communities are largely unseen and unnoticed – most work as cleaners and cooks in hotels, restaurants and cafés – the strike forced many establishments across Israel to close. This is activism of unprecedented proportion in Israel and it was covered by media all around the world, even making the front page of the UK’s Financial Times.
And the demonstrations did not cease at the Israeli borders. On the 22nd of January solidarity protests were held in front of Israeli embassies in Berlin, The Hague, London, Rome, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington DC, New York and these were mirrored in Tel Aviv by Eritreans and Sudanese holding marches to the embassies of these countries. Witnessing the marches in Tel Aviv, the most impressive aspect of these gatherings was the calm and dignity with which they were held. Large numbers of mostly young men, who have been protesting for weeks and have been suffering for years – they were not violent or unruly as you would anticipate, however walking with tape on their mouths and their hands crossed in the air, powerfully together in complete calm and silence.
Breakthroughs have been made. Certain Israeli media has stopped referring to the Eritrean and Sudanese communities as infiltrators, naming them instead refugees and asylum seekers. The centre right coalition party, Yesh Latid, is reviewing its stance towards African asylum seekers and Shimon Peres demanded that Israel respect the 1951 convention. Ultimately, however, the three demands of refugees and asylum-seekers in Israel (stop Israel’s detention policy, start individualised refugee status determination process, and give access to services including health) have yet to be met.
What is more, the new Holot detention centre is rapidly increasing its guests. On Sunday the 26th of January the first bus departed with 65 African asylum seekers who had been summoned to detention instead of having their visas renewed. Over the course of February, 1800 asylum seekers will be added to the facility. Many faced with this threat are desperately searching for an alternative, of which the only viable one is to return to their country of origin. Israel currently facilitates two flights a week for Sudanese to go back to their war torn country. Stories of those who have previously returned – their initial disappearance, detainment and often consequent escape to a neighbouring country – are not discouraging all and there is currently a waiting list of 1000 people.
Taj today is visiting the Ministry of Interior for the fourth time. Last Tuesday of the 400 refugees who were waiting in line at the Ministry of Interior in Rishon Letzion, only 30 received a one month visa after which immigration police is described to have attacked the remaining waiters. At this point Taj is still uncertain whether this long wait will result in being sent away, a renewal of his visa, receiving an invitation to Holot or being sent back to Sudan.