The Holot Detention Center

The Holot Detention Center, an Israeli facility for illegal migrants, is located in the Negev desert close by the Egyptian border. Described as an "open facility”, it is enclosed with razor wire, and built of metal and brick prefabricated huts. It has become the focus of Israel's roughly 50,000 African refugees, whom the government considers illegal economic migrants. Of the 2,000 men currently being held in Holot, most only are guilty of not being recognized as refugees. The government calls the refugees "infiltrators", seen as a threat to Israel's character as a Jewish democratic state. Ignoring criticism from the UN High Commission for Refugees, the government has refused to consider all but a handful of asylum requests. Most detainees have applied to be recognized as refugees, but according to one study, Israel has examined only 250 out of 1,800 asylum requests - and approved none. They are status-less, stateless, hopeless. Christian and Muslim refugees mainly from Eritrea and Sudan began migrating into Israel through Egypt in 2006, before Israel completed a long fence. This huge border area between Israel and Egypt has long been a gateway for human traffikers/smugglers, and is constantly surveilled by land and air by the military and border police. Many of the refugees were arrested after having worked and lived in Israel for years. They are hunted by police in cities and towns all over the country, where despite their illegal status, they can find work easily. Holot opened in December, 2013 and run by the state prison authority, is seen as a compromise after the Israeli High Court finally declared it unconstitutional to imprison refugees without trial for three years. In reaction, the government reduced actual prison terms to one year but allowed migrants to be housed indefinitely in an "open" facility. While they are supposedly free to leave, stringent rules requiring inmates to register three times a day, together with the center's remote desert location, make that impractical. Failing to register twice becomes a criminal offence, likely to result in jail time at nearby Saharonim prison. Housing is in re-purposed shipping containers, with no air conditioning, subsistence food, and minimal medical care. Fresh food brought from outside cannot be taken in. Privacy is rare. Guards, cameras and barbed wire everywhere leave no doubt that this is a prison in all but name. Returning to Darfur, Eritrea and Sudan is mortally dangerous. They are now offered a few thousand dollars if they “voluntarily” return to a third country called “exit routes”. Usually Uganda and Rwanda, they are sent from Israel without documents, official permits, or legal status; the prevailing opinion is that they are being simply “dumped” and left to fend for themselves. It has been reported that those who were sent from Israel to Uganda and Rwanda were arrested there and sent back to Eritrea, where they were again imprisoned or worse. The inmates, prohibited from working, spend their indefinite incarceration in limbo: walking around the fence, sleeping and sitting in whatever shade they can find. Having survived genocide, torture, arrest and desperate escape, having left everything and with nowhere else to go, often small groups simply walk out into the blazing desert, to kill a few hours out of the constant monitoring by guards. They suffer depression, endless boredom and the hopeless fact that they could be there for years.

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Photography: Dorit Jordan Dotan

The Israeli-Egyptian border. Israel completed a permanent fence all along the border in 2006. The entire area is rife with smuggling, from human trafficking to weapons and contraband brought from or through Egypt into Israeli territory. The area is also well-known as a favored place for refugees to cross into Israel, and many are caught and arrested here. Mot of the people caught have escaped from Sudan, Darfur, Eritrea and other war-torn African locations, and had survived a treacherous jou