More than two thousand asylum seekers, mostly Coptic Orthodox Christians from Eritrea, are living in an “isolated” and “grim” detention facility in southern Israel, according to members of a fact-finding mission sent by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Holot is an open detention facility in the Negev for Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers who have arrived in Israel. A group of 13 priests and sisters from the Latin Patriarchate’s office for migrants visited the facility May 15, including the coordinator, Latin Patriarchal Vicar Father David Neuhaus. They were also accompanied by Elisheva of ‘Physicians for Human Rights’.
The Holot facility was set up after the December 2013 Knesset legislation allowed the authorities to transfer Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers to this Negev location, the Latin Patriarchate says.
The facility now holds about 2,300 men who are obliged to sleep in the facility and have to be counted three times a day. They can leave during the day, but the facility is situated in the middle of the Negev Desert, a long distance from the nearest town. In addition, the inmates do not have the means to pay transport to leave the place.
Only two members of the group, Father David and Sister Azezet, were allowed to enter the facility, accompanied by Elisheva. They were accompanied by inmates who took them on a two hour visit of the large compound that can now hold 3,300 people.
“Inmates are ten to a room and the sprawling compound is divided into sections that are locked at night,” the Patriarchate reports. “There is nothing to do inside and community organization is still in its initial stages with very little resources to build on. Inside the group encountered three Eritrean Orthodox priests among the inmates and were shown the room that also serves as a church.”
The vast majority of inmates are Christian, and the Patriarchate says the “grim surroundings, the heat and the overcrowded rooms created the impression of a prison.” It said three major issues repeated by the inmates were: “Why are we here? What crime have we committed? When will we be released?; What are we to do with our time here? Please send us books. Please send us teachers. Please send us resources so that we can try to do something here!; And please help us improve conditions here. Health care is almost absent. The food is very bad. The various agencies that are supposed to function here do not in fact function.”
The fact-finding mission noticed more sections are being constructed and the authorities seem to be planning to expand the facility. For now only unmarried men are being confined there.
“Let us remember that today there are about 50,000 asylum seekers in Israel,” the Patriarchate said. “All of those we meet expressed great fear for their lives and liberty if they were forced to return to Sudan or Eritrea. Only 43 asylum seekers arrived in 2013 and the rest of them arrived from two to seven years ago. Here too Hebrew is the main language of communication between groups and with the authorities.
“Let us indeed pray for our brothers in Holot,” the Patriarch urged. “And let us find ways to be a support for them in their time of isolation and confinement.”