Out of Israeli detention, an asylum seeker seeks a better future (The Times of Israel)

Adam Youssef (not his real name) is sitting in a cafe in Ramat Gan. It is the first time in a year and a half he has been out after 10 p.m.

“I’m glad to be out of there,” he says with a broad smile. Just hours earlier, he had been released from the Holot detention facility in Israel’s southern desert.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the government released a total of 1,178 asylum seekers from Holot on orders from the High Court of Justice.

The court had instructed the government to release illegal migrants who had been held at the facility for over a year. The facility held unmarried male asylum seekers who had not been granted residency permits. This month’s ruling was the third time since 2012 that the High Court had overruled amendments to Israel’s “infiltrator law,” which allowed migrants to be held in detention for prolonged periods.

Agreeing to tell his story, Adam asked to meet in Ramat Gan, where he was spending the night with fellow asylum seekers in compliance with a government order to stay away from the city of Tel Aviv.

Adam, 27, is handsome with a strong build. He wears pressed white pants, a polo shirt and cologne. He was born in a village in the Darfur region of Sudan. But about 10 years ago, word got round that Janjaweed militia members were rampaging through villages and killing people. According to the United Nations, over 400,000 people have been killed in Darfur’s genocide.

“They were Muslim too, but they were killing us. We ran for our lives.”

African migrants sit outside the Holot detention center in southern Israel, on June 13, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90).

Adam and his family ended up in a refugee camp in Kenya. He lived there for about three years, but at a certain point he felt that he wanted to help his family as well as advance his own prospects.

“There isn’t that much to do in Kenya,” he says. “There are no jobs. I really wanted to help my family.”

Adam made his way to Egypt, and that’s when he first heard about Israel.

“I heard that it’s the only democratic country in the Middle East and the conditions are much better than other countries in Africa. I heard that you can go to school, you can work and it’s a lot safer than Egypt.”

So in 2010, Adam became one of the approximately 50,000 people, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, who trekked through Egypt’s Sinai desert and illegally crossed into Israel in the past eight years.

“We just crossed over the border, you know,” he says, a hint of embarrassment in his voice.

Soon after, Adam was apprehended by Israel’s border control.

“They took me to confinement,” he says in fluent English that he learned from watching videos and taking classes at Tel Aviv’s African Refugee Development Center.

“I stayed [in prison] for about seven months and then I was released to Tel Aviv.”

African migrants gather during a protest in Lewinsky park in Tel Aviv on January 09, 2014. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Adam arrived at Levinsky Park in the south of the city. With no money and nowhere to stay, he slept on the grass for three nights. Other African migrants sleeping in the park told him there were jobs available in the southern tourist town of Eilat. With his fluent English, Adam soon landed a job as a room service waiter in a hotel there.

“The tips were great,” he says, smiling, “but I really wanted to go to school and there aren’t any opportunities for school there in Eilat.”

Adam returned to Tel Aviv, where he found a job as a hotel waiter and studied at the ARDC in his spare time. He got fired two years later for having a physical altercation with his boss, after the boss made racist remarks.

“He said that because I’m African I shouldn’t be a waiter, I should be in the kitchen. I shoved him.”

Sent to Holot

One day, Adam received a summons to Holot, a detention facility in the desert built by the Israeli government in 2013 and run by the Israel Prison Service. It was built to detain citizens of Eritrea or Sudan whom the government had decided it could not forcibly repatriate due to human rights considerations. Detainees at Holot are free to go anywhere in the country during daylight hours, but must stay inside the facility between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. While in theory a detainee at Holot could hold a day job, in practice it is a two-hour bus ride from the closest big city, Beersheba.

What was it like in Holot?

“It was boring. I watched movies sometimes, and I read a lot of books in English, a lot of archaeology and history.”

Adam said he “devoured” information online using Holot’s spotty Internet service while studying for his GED, a North American high school equivalency exam, using a textbook brought to him by human rights activists.

“I read the social studies and science. I haven’t touched the math at all. I’m really bad at mathematics.”

Mutasim Ali stands in front of an electrical box at Holot, on which detainees have scrawled, ‘UN We Need Freedom’ (Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

Adam said the food was not great, and the detainees only got a small piece of chicken once a week. They did get some pocket money. When he herniated a disc in his back, he was sent to Beersheba’s Soroka Hospital for a CT scan. Doctors prescribed strong painkillers and epidural injections. At one point the guards tried to confiscate his painkillers because they claimed they were narcotics.

“I felt like a prisoner.”

Why?

“The way they treated me, the way the guards talked to me.”

They didn’t talk to you nicely?

“No. Some of them did. Some of them talked to you like, hey, they just want to get to know you. But not all of them.”

Sabine Hadad, a spokeswoman for Israel’s Interior Ministry, said she was not authorized to speak about conditions within Holot itself, but did explain the government’s rationale for detaining migrants there.

“The government’s current policy is not to send back Eritreans and Sudanese, nor to forcibly expel them. But the reason we built Holot is to discourage more infiltrators from coming. It’s a tool of deterrence.”

The Ugandan option

Adam said that the experience of Holot was sufficiently unpleasant that about 25 of his friends left the country.

Where did they go?

They went to Uganda and back to Sudan.”

Uganda?

“Uganda is the only place that Sudanese can go. But you can’t work there.”

Why not?

“Because you’re not Ugandan.”

Not all of his friends have fared well.

“One of my friends got killed by soldiers in South Sudan. Another friend was robbed of everything.”

Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg, a Chicago-born, Tel Aviv-based activist with Right Now: Advocates for Asylum-Seekers in Israel, explains, “Israel says it has agreements with two undisclosed third-party countries in Africa that are willing to accept African migrants in exchange for weapons deals. Israel will not release the names of those countries or the details of those agreements but Israel can assure that once people get to these two countries they will be safe and all of their rights will be recognized.

“In actuality,” Glassenberg continues, “NGOs that have done some research found that those two countries are Uganda and Rwanda. People who end up in Rwanda have no status and they end up having to bribe Rwandan officials to get them to Uganda. And people who go to Uganda have a three-day visa. After three days they have no status in Uganda.”

Elliot Glassenberg with asylum seekers (Facebook)

80 shekels in his pocket

On Wednesday morning, Adam walked out of the Holot detention center in accordance with the High Court ruling.

He was given NIS 80 (about $20), a two-month renewable residency permit, and strict instructions not to settle in Eilat or Tel Aviv.

“I took a bus from Holot to Beersheba. I bought coffee and a snack for 20 shekels, and then I took another bus here [to Ramat Gan],” he says.

Do you have any money?

No money at all.

Where are you staying?

I’m crashing with friends

According to Glassenberg, speaking to The Times of Israel over the weekend, none of the released detainees from Holot slept on the street for the first few nights.

African illegal migrants carry their belongings following their release from the Holot Detention Centre in Israel’s Negev desert, on August 25, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA)

“It’s been pretty amazing. The asylum seeker community and Israel activist community have been working together. Hundreds of people reached out and volunteered to host for short and long term, both African asylum seekers and Israelis,” he says.

Meanwhile, Adam now has a tentative job offer. “It’s at an event hall in Rishon Lezion; 28 shekels ($7.14) an hour.”

A visit to south Tel Aviv

The most vocal group opposing the African asylum seekers has been residents of south Tel Aviv, where the sudden influx of tens of thousands of migrants has created tension between newcomers and local residents.

Meir Shmuel (Photo credit: Simona Weinglass)

Meir Shmuel, the owner of an electronics shop on Har Tzion Boulevard near the city’s central bus station, is the first person The Times of Israel approaches.

“We don’t hate the asylum seekers,” he says. “We feel sorry for them. But a lot of people in this neighborhood are suffering.”

Shmuel, who was born in the neighborhood, says it has become filthy and unsanitary in the past few years. “There is trash everywhere. They throw their trash from the balconies into the backyards. There are mice, and the sewage system can’t handle the number of people here so it gets blocked all the time. Instead of four people to an apartment, you’ll have eight or ten. The city would have to pick up the trash every hour to keep it sanitary.

“Some of the migrants don’t work and they get drunk. One will fall down on the sidewalk and start shouting. My friend who is a police officer says there is an incident every ten minutes: fighting, drinking, theft. A lot of my female customers will take a cab home and they tell the driver not to move until they get into their house.

“I understand the migrants. If you don’t have a job and don’t have money, you turn to crime. Anyone would. Israelis too. I think where they come from it’s like Islamic State, there’s no value to human life, but it’s just hard for us to absorb them all. We can’t even solve our own problems.”

Well-founded fear or racism?

Glassenberg says that despite these sorts of complaints, there are a lot of people in south Tel Aviv who don’t mind the asylum seekers and that, in his view, “the voices that are actively anti-asylum seeker are minority voices.”

He says the solution to overcrowding in south Tel Aviv is to give migrants more permanent visas and work permits so that “it will be easier for them to find employment and housing outside of Tel Aviv.”

As for the people who are afraid to leave their houses after dark, Glassenberg questions whether such fears are fueled by reality or racism.

“Is it right to deprive a person of their basic rights because they belong to a group that Jewish Israeli residents are afraid of? Are the African asylum seekers a problem that needs to be dealt with, or is the fear of them – xenophobia — a problem that needs to be dealt with?”

A vocal opponent

May Golan has made frequent media appearances in recent years, emerging as one of the most strident voices among residents of the neighborhood who strongly oppose the influx of migrants.

“This has always been a neighborhood with legal foreign workers from Nepal, Thailand and Romania,” she says.

May Golan (via Facebook)

“When the infiltrators started coming seven years ago, we didn’t know who they were. We thought they were Ethiopian, and we were happy. But only after there were so many crimes, rapes and violence did we ask ourselves who they were. We found out the government was putting them on a bus and telling them to live in south Tel Aviv. We’re already the weakest population.”

According to Golan, the groups that are helping the infiltrators “are using them for their own agenda. They don’t want this to remain a Jewish state. That’s the subtext of everything.

“At first, I asked myself, why are the human rights groups ignoring our pain and suffering, the residents of south Tel Aviv? But the more I found out, the more I saw that these are the same people who are funded by the New Israel Fund and left-wing foundations. These are the same people who rally against our army and the occupation.”

According to Golan, the majority of infiltrators, at least 80 percent, are not actually refugees, but people who came to Israel to better their economic circumstances.

“Cairo has one of the biggest UN human rights centers. Why don’t they go there? Because they know they won’t meet the criteria.”

Golan says she is very upset over the High Court of Justice’s decision to free the detainees in Holot.

“The High Court is completely detached from the reality of south Tel Aviv’s people. Holot was a tool for the country to deal with new infiltrators. Since the High Court decision, there have been 78 new infiltrators in the last month. There are 5,000 new births every year in Ichilov Hospital. If you do the math, in 10 years we won’t be able to control this growing minority here.”

The math

Sabine Hadad, the Interior Ministry spokeswoman, disputes these numbers: “Nine new infiltrators have arrived since the beginning of the week, and 85 have arrived since the beginning of the year.”

The number of migrants had tapered off almost entirely after the government built a border fence in 2012, but Hadad says the numbers have crept up again following the High Court’s decision.

How did the most recent migrants get past the fence?

“They climbed over. This bolsters the state’s claim that the fence is not enough. You need a combination of a law that deters infiltrators and the fence.”

What about Adam Youssef?

“He is not a refugee,” she says. “If he were a refugee he wouldn’t have been in Holot. He would have had refugee status. That comes with rights.”

Hadad says a common fallacy is that if you define yourself as a refugee or simply feel persecuted that automatically makes you one.

“The definition of a refugee is not a matter of personal opinion. There’s the law. Anyone who crosses the border unlawfully is an infiltrator. If someone asks for asylum, they’re called an asylum seeker. A refugee is someone who is granted refugee status. But I can already tell you that in the initial questioning we do, most infiltrators tell us they have come to work here. So we know they’re work migrants.

“The Eritreans call themselves refugees, but they ran away from Eritrea because they didn’t want to serve in the army. That’s not a refugee.”

Hadad gives an example to show why each case has to be investigated in depth.

“A few years ago we had a young Nigerian man who asked for refugee status. It’s a long process, with in-depth interviews. It turns out that a few years before he had burned a hut in his village as an act of revenge. The hut had 12 people in it. So the police were looking for him. He told us he was a refugee because he was fleeing the police, but he was a criminal.”

How many of the migrants have received refugee status?

“A few dozen.”

If you ask Elliot Glassenberg how many of the 48,000 Sudanese and Eritrean migrants currently in Israel should get refugee status, he’ll give you a wildly different number.

“In other developed countries, 82% of Eritrean applicants and 68% of Sudanese applicants are recognized as refugees. In Israel, one could only assume that the percentage of those who would qualify as refugees would be similar. Or perhaps even higher, because it is likely that many who would not qualify as refugees have already left.”

In fact, he believes it is a moral imperative for Israel to allow most, if not all, of the Sudanese and Eritreans currently in the country to live and work here.

“They have fled persecution and genocide. They should be recognized as refugees.”

The alternative is to keep innocent people in prison.

“There’s one argument that Israel is a small country, that it’s not rich — that we don’t have the capacity to provide protection to all these people. That’s just not true. They’re not an economic or demographic threat. The most basic human and Jewish thing that we can do is let them stay and work here in peace and contribute to the country.”

And what about future migrants?

“Israel should decide on a certain number it will absorb each year.”

Golan says that is exactly what she’s afraid of. By absorbing a certain number of migrants each year, Israel could eventually lose its Jewish majority.

How would you respond to people who say that’s racist?

“Am I a racist for wanting to keep the only Jewish country?” Golan asks. “We have only one Jewish country that is so small and we had to go through the Holocaust to get it. We have old women and invalids, Holocaust survivors and single mothers. We have so many problems in this country. We don’t have the resources to give them to illegal infiltrators from Africa who will keep on coming; make no mistake. “

Canada as the Promised Land

As for Adam, his long-term plan is to leave Israel.

“I don’t want to stay here anymore. I don’t feel like a citizen. I feel like I could end up back [in Holot] again. You never know.”

Reflecting on his life until now, Adam says, “It’s been pretty precarious.”

What is your greatest dream?

“I’d like to situate myself and probably go back to school. I want to get the GED first and then to go to college somewhere, maybe in Canada or the US.”