Visiting Israel’s “Open Prisons” for African Refugees

At the end of December the Israeli Ministry of Interior notified asylum seekers it is severely reducing its hours of operations. As a result hundreds of asylum seekers were unable to renew their visas, were picked off the streets by the Border Police and shipped to Israel’s new “open prison” in the Negev Desert. The Real News’ Lia Tarachansky visited the complex of prisons with activist Moran Barir and spoke to refugees from Eritrea and Sudan.

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Story Transcript

LIA TARACHANSKY, PRODUCER: At the end of December, the Israeli minister of interior notified asylum seekers it’s severely reducing its hours of operations. Fifty thousand refugees from Eritrea and Sudan depend on the ministry to renew their visas on a monthly basis, a procedure made already difficult by the long bureaucratic red tape its offices force the refugees to undergo even before these restricted hours.

As a result, hundreds of refugees were unable to renew their visas on time, were arrested by the racial profiling border police on the streets of Tel Aviv and shipped in buses to Israel’s so-called open prison in the Negev Desert. When a group of refugees decided to defy the imprisonment policy and marched out of the prison to Jerusalem, a general strike was organized alongside protests that saw tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Tel Aviv.

On Thursday, a women’s protest was organized in solidarity with the arrested.

CROWD: No more prison! We need freedom! [incompr.]

TARACHANSKY: The women marched to the headquarters of the UNHCR, where they pointed a finger at the UN agency’s failure to assist African asylum seekers in Israel. But while the UNHCR condemns the Israeli government’s recent amendments to the anti-infiltration law allowing for the mass imprisonment of asylum seekers, it does very little to assist them. The reason, its officials say, is that Israel has no real process for asylum seekers to gain the status of a refugee and get basic rights. It’s therefore nearly impossible for the UNHCR to even arrange the refugees’ asylum in other countries. Instead, they’re slowly being picked off the streets and shipped to the detention complex in the desert that now includes a so-called open prison, a closed and an army prison.

For the Israeli activists who have shown the refugees support, the struggle is deeply connected to that of the Palestinians. Moran Barir is a central activist who weekly delivers donations and visits the refugees in the camps.

~~~

MORAN BARIR, ACTIVIST (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I think there’s a direct link between the Palestinian and African refugees. It’s the same mechanisms, the same system that uses the same methods to create the same results and the same incitement and violence. So, in 1948 … most of the indigenous population of this land was expelled, the Palestinians, who became refugees. And that serves to–how to say it?–create a Jewish state with maximum land and minimum Arabs. So you can also say maximum land with minimum non-Jews. The anti-infiltration law, for example, is the very legal framework that criminalized the Palestinian refugees when they tried to return to their homes and lands. And this law framed them as criminals, as infiltrators, saying they want to take over, they want to kill us. And now the amendments to that same law criminalize and allow for mass imprisonment of the African refugees.

This is the punishment wing, where the asylum seekers on hunger strike are punished for striking. The Prison Service is trying to break them, to stop the strike. They lost the right to be outside in the yard and to use the phone. They’re really isolated, and now also separated.

This is Ktzi’ot. We passed Saharonim. And we’re about to get to Hulot prison.

INTERVIEWER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): What’s Ktzi’ot?

BARIR: Another jail, a military jail.

Welcome to Hulot, the open prison.

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TARACHANSKY: [hal’tom] is an asylum seeker from Eritrea. Today his daughter celebrates her second birthday and marks a year since she last saw her father.

ERITREAN REFUGEE (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): There’s no reason why I should be in jail. Why? I’m not an animal. I’m a human being. A year! I shouldn’t be in jail even for one day. Why?

I have to sign in three times a day. If I miss even one day, they take me to the closed prison.

~~~

ERITREAN REFUGEE (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I am so bored. All day I think about what I can do with my life. It just goes on like this. They freed me from that prison. Now they put me in this prison. I have no more hope. I’m losing my mind here. All day we have nothing to do.

INTERVIEWER: How many people are you in a room?

ERITREAN REFUGEE Ten people per room.

INTERVIEWER: In every room?

ERITREAN REFUGEE: Yes. They should free us all. Or, if you don’t want us, let us go to another country.

~~~

TARACHANSKY: But the refugees don’t see a link between their struggle and that of the Palestinians. Many who come from Sudan, such as [bakri’[email protected]], are victims of Omar al-Bashir’s repression, and are therefore deeply skeptical of Muslims in general and the Palestinians in particular.

~~~

ERITREAN REFUGEE: I don’t know what is going on with them, because that one is different than us. It’s different than in us. We don’t–.

TARACHANSKY: They are also struggling for freedom.

ERITREAN REFUGEE: Yeah, they’re waiting for freedom, but we also–we are different. We are refugees. And them, they are fighting for their country.

TARACHANSKY: Most Palestinians are refugees because of Israel. Do you see solidarity between you and them?

ERITREAN REFUGEE: Sorry. That history is another thing, so you cannot talk about that one. Only we need to talk about ourself here.

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ACTIVIST (WITH MEGAPHONE): We are–we carry people from Tel Aviv, from Beersheba, from Jerusalem, from Holot, and we support you. We know you are in hunger strike for two weeks already, and we know they’re giving you a hard time inside the prison, they try to break you over and over again. And we are here to stand with you until you are all free.

BARIR: The struggle of the African refugees and that of the Palestinian refugees and the Palestinians in general in the face of arrests without charge and extended imprisonment, the entire legal mechanism that allows their imprisonment, in that way their struggles are similar. And now with the hunger strike the similarities are very strong, because maybe the only or the strongest tool they and the Palestinian prisoners have is hunger strikes.

TARACHANSKY: For The Real News, I’m Lia Tarachansky in the Hulot prison complex, Negev Desert.

End

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