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'Open' detention

Kate Shuttleworth, Nitzana borderNovember 29, 2013

Israel is introducing "open" detention centers to house the growing influx of African refugees who cross the Sinai border region. However the "open" character of those centers has been called into question.

The sweeping fence outside Sadot open detention facility. Copyright: DW/ Kate Shuttleworth, DW, Israel, Nov 2013
Image: DW/K. Shuttleworth

The land is barren and unwelcoming. Looking down from Israel at the Nitzana border crossing into the Sinai, in Egypt, the earth is so dry it glows orange - it's unforgiving territory.

This is the first sight for many of the 55,000 Africans who have escaped their homes to find freedom when they enter Israel illegally - 90 percent of them originally come from Eritrea and Sudan.

An ominous steel fence - project ‘sand timer' - was finished in January this year when cameras, radar and motion detectors were added to it's arsenal, marking a firm line in the sand.

According to government figures for the first half of this year, 34 Africans tried to cross the border into Israel and were detained, compared with 9,570 last year before the fence was started. Of the 34, five tunneled under the new fence and were caught, the rest appealed to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to be allowed to enter.

Eritrean refugee Dawit Demoz, 31, arrived through the same border before the fence was built at the end of 2009. Demoz had tried several ways to get out of Eritrea: he went to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan and then tried to get to Europe from Libya. Eventually he paid smugglers $2,500 (1,800 euros) to get him to the Sinai border. In total, it took him 11 months to get to Israel.

He was smuggled to the border in an open-back truck with three Sudanese men and one Nigerian man hiding behind a heavy load. Once he reached the border he crossed into Israel on foot and was detained by the IDF in a military camp for two days. "Two hours after we crossed another group were seen trying to cross the border and they were shot by the Egyptians, and two or three of them died, Demoz told DW." Egyptian soldiers have a shoot-to-kill policy if they see anyone enter the area illegally.

Interrogation and detention

He spent three months in Saharonim detention facility, initially in tents before being moved inside the building. He said the detainees ate twice a day, but many were on a hunger strike.

Saharonim prison, where David Demoz was detained and another 1,700 refugees are currently detained. Copyright: DW/ Kate Shuttleworth, DW, Israel, Nov 2013
Demoz says he is one of the lucky ones to make it from EritreaImage: DW/K. Shuttleworth

Demoz said he was interrogated about why he came to Israel and told he had to say he came to work.

"I personally told them I came because I couldn't live in Eritrea, because it was very difficult with big human rights violations; so I escaped with the goal of finding freedom. I was told I needed to change my mind and I was made to wait outside for nine hours. When they called me back I said I hadn't changed my mind, do whatever you want and they released me, but it's written on my documents that I came to work."

Demoz said he narrowly escaped torture in Eritrea and spoke about a man he had heard of who had been killed and whose family had been blackmailed.

"A man that was in Sinai for three months before us when we came, within three months he did not have any options, no chance to pay $25,000 - he had no phone number for anyone who could help him - he was killed. They had his family's telephone number so they phoned his family while beating a different refugee and they heard that he was being beaten and screaming - they were told to sell their whole home and all their possessions to come up with $30,000 and two weeks they told them he had already died."

One-way ticket

After three months in Saharonim, Demoz was taken to Beer Shiva and given a bus ticket to Tel Aviv.

Sara Robinson, a refugee campaigner from Amnesty International has seen bus loads of people arriving at Levinsky Park, in Tel Aviv.

Men sleep on the ground under the playground in Levinsky Park. Ashley Gallagher, Tel Aviv May 2013 via: DW/ Robert Mudge
Refugees refer to Levinsky Park is "the hotel" where they eat and sleep amid the playground equipmentImage: DW/A. Gallagher

"The bus would often be half-full of people coming from detention, the bus driver would either take them to the central bus station or he knew to drop them off in Levinsky Park."

She said refugees called Levinsky Park, "the hotel." "People would get off the bus holding a plastic bag which would have that extra shirt and a yellow piece of paper and they looked to the right and they looked to the left and they asked 'where's the UN?', 'Where do I go?' 'What do I do?' Then they saw the sleeping bags and articles of clothing hidden under playground equipment in Levinsky Park and realised this was what was welcoming them."

South Tel Aviv, where Levinsky Park sits, is an historically poor area. Tensions in the area have been compounded with the arrival of up to 20,000 homeless refugees.

"When you put another marginalized population on top of another it's a recipe for disaster," Robinson told DW.

Many of the refugees and migrants turn to crime because they are not legally allowed to work by the Israeli government and have no access to health care or welfare benefits.

Tel Aviv police chief Yohanan Danino has called for migrants to be allowed to work to discourage petty crime caused by economic hardship. However, his appeal has so far fallen on deaf ears. Former Interior Minister Eli Yishai has lashed out at refugees and migrants in the media saying, "why should we provide them with jobs? ... Jobs would settle them here, they will make babies, and that offer will only result in hundreds of thousands more coming over here." He said all migrants should be jailed until they are deported.

Urgent legislation

In September, Israel's Supreme Court overturned a law allowing the government to detain migrants and asylum seekers for up to three years without trial. The court ruled migrants, refugees and asylum seekers detained in the Ktziot and Saharonim prison and detention center should be released within 90 days and those that cross the border illegally can only be detained for one year in the future.

The government has responded by passing an amended law to reduce the period of detention to one year and proposed the indefinite detention in "open" detention centers without judicial review. That law is due to be passed on December 4.

Back near the Nitzana border, Sadot, an empty detention facility next to Saharonim, is ready to absorb the 1,700 refugees detained in Saharonim and due to be released in accordance with the court's 90-day deadline on December 15.

huts surrounded by a barbed wire fence Copyright: DW/ Kate Shuttleworth, DW, Israel, Nov 2013
The center's "open" character is not immediately apparentImage: DW/K. Shuttleworth

When DW visited Sadot, the camp was surrounded by large wire fences, topped with barbed wire - it's status as an "open" facility is questionable. Police stopped DW and asked that no photographs be taken from the public road outside the facility, despite journalists having the right to do so.

The police officer who stopped DW said there was no way the facility would be open for the detainees to roam, in an area mainly populated by Jewish settlers.

He said the "open" aspect within the facility was a large road on the inside of the fence, but they couldn't leave the fenced area.

"The fence will be closed - they will be free inside the fence, they have a giant yard and won't have tiny rooms, they can go out whenever they want."

However, that's as far as they would be able to go, the police officer said. "If they get out of the fence they will never come back."