Trapped: Eritrean and Sudanese refugees in Israel

Over the summer of last year I travelled to the Holy Land in a bid to understand better the Arab-Israeli conflict. The aim (like that of so many others) was to further develop my understanding of why this region continues to be torn apart by fighting, why it is so difficult to discuss the issues involved, and how it might be possible to move forward from this.

However, whilst travelling I met a young man called Alex who worked for Amnesty International Israel. According to Alex, Amnesty International Israel finds it incredibly difficult to work in the West Bank. As a result, they now focus their efforts on another group of people living at the mercy of the Israeli Government. Over the past decade Israel has become home to thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees seeking asylum. From what Alex had told me, the reality of their lives once in Israel is highly concerning. In the months after meeting Alex I conducted a number of interviews over Skype to discuss the issues faced by these refugees and looked deeper into what was known about their experiences. What follows is my attempt to understand what’s happening to these people and perhaps provide an insight into the treatment of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees within the “Jewish State”.

The men stand almost rigidly with impossible scars and eyes that tell of wounds that run deep; deep into the Sinai desert, through the horrors of people traffickers, and back to the tragedy of their home lands. Muted and numb, with little expectation of finding what we might consider happiness again, they gather outside the Open Air Detention Facility “Holot”.

This facility, located in the middle of a military training area 6 miles walk from the nearest town, is used by Israel to detain African refugees seeking asylum. The sound of traditional Eritrean and Sudanese music plays from the cars of friends who have travelled to support them. The smell of waste mingles with the smell of barbecue smoke and spices as these refugees gather to distract themselves from the nightmares of kidnapped family members and from memories of unfathomable torture.

Alex Jones, Amnesty International Volunteer, described seeing this enclosure when I spoke to him in December 2015. He told me volunteers for Amnesty are unable to go into or up to the entrance of the enclosure. They work in small tents where detainees come for assistance in writing their asylum claims. These tents are set against a backdrop of barbed wire fences. Beyond the barbed wire are the buildings where the refugees are forced to sleep. Down a narrow passage encased by more barbed wire is the entrance to this facility. The armed guards at the far end of this corridor make entering the detention facility without permission impossible. This entrance is where the dehumanization begins, Alex said. The refugees are treated “like animals going into a pen.”

And then beyond the entrance, inside the camp? All Alex heard were stories of inedible food, bad hygiene, lack of soap, unbearably hot and cramped rooms, and insufficient medical attention. He was told that the sound of tanks and bullets from military training exercises regularly induced instances of trauma in those already suffering from post-traumatic stress. Physical symptoms included men wetting the bed during the painfully hot nights. With insufficient medical assessments conducted, no one was identifying the suffering, nothing was being done.

This entrance is where the dehumanization begins

There are many men at Holot, however, who continue to fight against this dehumanization. Alex told me about one individual, a Sudanese asylum seeker called Ali, who was summoned to Holot by the Israeli government after working to promote refugee rights in Israel. In fact, Ali was offered a place at a university in Germany to study Human Rights law. But Alex tells me that, because Israel will not acknowledge him as a refugee and provide him with the appropriate documentation, he has been unable to accept this place. In an interview with Amnesty, Ali said, “I have been given a hard time by this life. But…I have lived worse than this in Darfur. To see innocent civilians brutally murdered in front of your eyes, women raped in front of your eyes, villages burned…is harder than to be denied a visa…But still, it is hard if you have the dream to study and to pursue a normal, fulfilling life.” Alex told me that it is unclear why Ali has been detained at Holot; Amnesty suspect that his involvement in promoting refugee rights may have heavily influenced the Government’s decision to summon him.

Regardless of individual cases, the detention of these refugees in general is justified by the claim of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Government that these people are not refugees but “labour infiltrators”. The political language used to describe these refugees is centered on two ideas. First, that the “infiltrators” pose a significant risk to the Jewish identity of Israel. Second, that, far from fleeing for their lives, these people simply seek a more enjoyable life in a more economically developed country. This second claim, at least, goes against all the evidence.


Photo by Chris Cook

In June 2015, The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea released a report detailing the “systematic, widespread and gross” Human Rights violations committed by the Eritrean government. These violations have resulted in the mass exodus of people fleeing the totalitarian regime. All Eritreans are required to enroll in a national military service of indefinite length. The UN has compared this, without hesitation, to slavery. Instances of physical, psychological and sexual torture are normal practice by officers on conscripts. Arbitrary arrest and detention in overcrowded cells where detainees are sometimes forced to sleep in human waste is widely reported. As well as food rations being kept to a minimum and access to fresh air and natural light often being limited intentionally, torture, disappearance, and extrajudicial execution are routine. These conditions result in an atmosphere of deep-set and widespread fear. The primary reason given by Eritrean refugees as to why they have fled Eritrea is the terrifying and unquestionably dangerous environment in which they were forced to live.

The situation in Sudan is just as horrific. The United Nations estimated in 2007 that more than 200,000 people had died and at least 2 million had been displaced from their homes in Darfur since fighting broke out in 2003. Atrocities such as the burning of villages, the murder of civilians, the rape of women and girls, and the detention and torture of political activists are widespread. So horrific has this conflict been that in 2004 US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell concluded that the violence in Darfur amounted to genocide. According to the UNHCR, in 2015 6.9 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance in Sudan. In fact Sudan’s Criminal Act states that Sudanese nationals who visit an enemy state may be imprisoned for 10 years if caught.[1] Israel is considered an enemy state by Sudan. Consequently, all Sudanese nationals that have arrived in Israel should, according to international law, automatically be recognized as refugees.

Israel has recognized only around 200 refugees in total [since 1951]

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported in 2012 that 83 percent of Eritrean Asylum Seekers were granted either refugee status or another protected status when applying for Asylum in countries such as Italy, Norway, and the United Kingdom.[2] According to Human Rights Watch, by the end of 2013 there were 636,405 registered Sudanese refugees and 28,705 registered Sudanese asylum seekers worldwide. The sheer weight of numbers would suggest that the conditions Sudanese and Eritrean Nationals face in their countries of origin have been universally recognized as justifying at least some form of protected status. Israel has so far granted asylum to only four Eritrean refugees and to absolutely no Sudanese refugees. In fact, since signing the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees Israel has recognized only around 200 refugees in total. Between July 2009 and August 2013, despite the fact that around 17,000 people applied for asylum, only 26 people had this asylum granted. Of these asylum claims, 92 percent were from Sudan and Eritrea.

For the majority of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, then, there are two paths that life can take. One is that of life in a ghetto, without official documents, and where exposure to discriminatory laws makes life in Israel incredibly challenging. On this path, Eritrean and Sudanese refugees are subject to persistent racism. It comes not only from members of the public but also from high profile Government officials. Descriptions of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers as “Invaders”, a “Cancer” and a “Plague” have become worryingly common. In 2012 there were fatal arson attacks, which further showed the danger African refugees face once they have entered Israel.

Descriptions of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers as “Invaders”, a “Cancer” and a “Plague” have become worryingly common

However, in fact this is arguably the symptom of a wider problem in Israel. Given the Zionist dream that Israel would become a safe haven for Jews, in the 1980s and 1990s Israel embarked on a number of rescue missions. One such operation transported tens of thousands of black Ethiopian Jews, who had suffered discrimination, famine and Civil War. However, on arrival in Israel the ‘safe haven’ that had been promised was wildly different to what they had imagined. In 2015, protests erupted in Tel Aviv where Ethiopian Jews demanded that Israel recognize “Black Lives Matter”. These protests were staged in order to highlight the decades of poverty, discriminatory laws and human rights abuses that Ethiopians have experienced in Israel. Possibly the most shocking of these abuses concerned the administration of birth control injections to women of Ethiopian lineage without their knowledge or consent. The level of discrimination that black Jewish Israeli citizens are subject to, only goes to underline how difficult the reality of being a black non-Jewish refugee in Israel must be.

The alternative path for an Eritrean or Sudanese refugee in Israel is arbitrary detainment without trial in Holot. Under the 4th amendment of the Israeli Anti Infiltration Law, asylum seekers arriving into Israel from Egypt may be imprisoned in Saharonim prison for a period of one year before being transferred to Holot. For those who entered Israel before this amendment, many also receive summons at the Immigration Authority offices when they come to renew their visas. According to Migrant Hotline, until June 6th 2014 the Immigration Authority did not conduct hearings for asylum seekers when they were summoned. Many detainees were refused the opportunity to have legal representation, to plead their cases, and explain why it was unreasonable to detain them without examining their claim for asylum.

Any “Migrant” who wishes to leave Holot will be paid $3,500 to “relocate” to Rwanda or Uganda

On this path Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers are given a “choice”. Any “Migrant” who wishes to leave Holot will be paid $3,500 to “relocate” to Rwanda or Uganda. The Israeli Government gives assurance that these “Migrants” will be provided with the necessary papers to enable them to remain legally in the receiving country. However, the International Refugee Rights Initiative published a paper in September 2015, which warns that the reality of such “relocation” is much harsher than Israel would like to suggest. According to this report, refugees sent to Uganda have their identity documents confiscated and are left on their own with no legal status or security. Rwandan officials are often violent, demand bribes, and have been known to arbitrarily detain refugees without trial. Interviews suggest that refugees are not given information about how to apply for asylum. Those with a sufficient understanding of the asylum system prior to arrival are often threatened or told that applying for asylum may lead to their deportation.

The report goes on to say that the majority of asylum seekers sent to Rwanda are smuggled out of the country within days of arriving. Given no opportunity to apply for asylum, these refugees are taken to South Sudan, Sudan, or Libya with many eventually risking the Mediterranean crossing to Europe, considered by Amnesty International as the most dangerous sea journey in the world. Tesfay Kidane was reported as one such victim. “Relocated” from Holot to Rwanda by Israel, he was smuggled to Uganda and managed to find his way to Libya. His intention was to attempt the Mediterranean crossing in a bid to find safety in Europe. In 2015, a video was distributed by ISIS in which Tesfay was executed along with dozens of other Eritreans and Ethiopians on a Libyan beach.

According to the Refugee Rights Initiative, asylum seekers who “choose” to “relocate” from Israel, do so because the realities of staying in Holot or going back to their country of origin are intolerable. The Israeli authorities’ rhetoric that such “relocation” is voluntary is highly questionable. For the vast majority of refugees, “relocation” marks the beginning of another dangerous and terrifying journey: a journey, which many may not survive.


In the shadow of Israel’s Open Air Detention Facility, refugees continue to apply for asylum despite the overwhelming likelihood that they will not be accepted. “There is not exactly an atmosphere of negativity here,” Alex said. “In fact you often hear people joking and laughing but any optimism seems superficial. It is clear when we talk to them that they have been devastated by anger and pain. It is hard to imagine how they can look to the future.”

Further Reading

1. The Criminal Act 1991”, Arab Law Quarterly, Vol.9, No. 1 (1994) pp. 32-80). Sudan considers Israel to be one such state (Ziegler, R. and Berman, Y. (2015) The union of securitisation and demography: immigration detention in Israel. In:Nethery, A. and Silverman, S. J. (eds.) Immigration Detention: The Migration of a Policy and its Human Impact. Routledge, pp. 154-162

2. Displacement: The New 21st Century Challenge, UNHCR Global Trends 2012,” UNCHR News Stories, June 18, 2012.

Banner photo by Chris Cook