TEL AVIV, Israel — On stage, Mutasim Ali was a star. He spoke with confidence and enthusiasm, shouting slogans and sharing his feelings, igniting the thousands of fellow African migrants who gathered last Wednesday to demonstrate for refugee rights. Ali spoke of democracy, of hope and of a non-violent protest, swiftly alternating between Arabic, English and Hebrew. He spoke like a free and proud man.
In a few weeks, Ali could lose his freedom. The Israeli Immigration Authority has recently handed him a warrant. He is to report to Holot Detention Center, an open jail constructed in response to the arrival of the African migrants, within 30 days. Residents in Holot can leave but are required to return three times a day for roll call.
The migrants call Holot a concentration camp. The compound is located in the mostly uninhabited Negev Desert and can hold 3,000 people. For 27-year-old Ali, who escaped Sudan in 2009 because his “life was in danger,” reporting to Holot means he will not be able to work or maintain a normal life.
Ali is one of more than 55,000 African migrants that have entered Israel illegally in the past seven years. Most are from Sudan and Eritrea. All of them smuggled their way into the country through the land border with Egypt, which used to be porous until a fence was completed last year.
While the migrants call themselves asylum seekers, the Israeli government calls them "infiltrators," but is unable to force them to return to their countries because of its commitment to the 1951 International Refugee Convention. Rather, Israel has mostly refused to review asylum applications from Sudanese and Eritreans, in violation of the same convention, according to an Amnesty International Report.