TEL AVIV, Israel — In a dusty detention center in Israel’s Negev desert, Tomas Yomani, an asylum seeker from Eritrea in East Africa, has been biding his time for nine months while under the watch of Israeli guards.
Yomani, 30, can’t work because the nearest city is hours away. And if he misses roll call taken three times a day, he could be deported to another African country and risk personal danger eight years after he fled Eritrea because of human rights abuses.
“I live in fear always,” he told USA TODAY in a phone interview from the camp, called Holot, or “sands” in Hebrew. “I left my country because I was afraid of being imprisoned, and now I am imprisoned again.”
Thousands of African asylum seekers like Yomani face grim choices: Stay in Israel, where they are safe but with limited freedom, or agree to Israel’s relocation program that sends refugees to Rwanda or Uganda to face more persecution and danger.
“Israel is a democratic country. I didn’t think it should be this way,” Yomani lamented.
Israel’s treatment of African refugees has come under attack from local human rights groups, who say a country founded by Jewish refugees persecuted during World War II should be more understanding of the asylum seekers’ plight.
“The entire world is dealing with millions of refugees. It’s baseless for Israel, a developed country, to claim that it cannot take its part in carrying the burden,” said Dror Sadot, spokesperson for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an Israeli human rights group. Government officials “refuse to recognize (the Africans’) existence,” she said.
Israel has granted asylum to only nine Africans refugees, one of the lowest acceptance rates among industrialized democracies, according to Sadot.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in October that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a deal with Rwandan President Paul Kagame at the U.N. in September to deport African migrants from Israel to Rwanda. The alleged agreement drew a sharp rebuke from the country’s human rights groups.
The Israeli government refused to comment on the report, but Netanyahu referred to the arrangement in September when he told a cabinet meeting, “In my visits to Africa and conversations with African leaders, I have created a base of countries willing to absorb these infiltrators.”
Israel has “the right, as in every country, to supervise our borders and remove anyone who is here illegally,” Netanyahu said. He added that Africans who have arrived in recent years “posed a real threat to the future of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
African refugees who are Jewish are granted automatic asylum in Israel, as are Jews from anywhere in the world. In the past, Israel has granted citizenship to many Jews from Ethiopia and other African countries.
The current African asylum seekers are overwhelmingly Muslims and Christians from Eritrea and Sudan who chose Israel because of its geographical proximity and reputation as a liberal democracy.
In addition to the several thousand Africans living in the desert detention center, nearly 40,000 African migrants live in Israel, but with no guarantee they can stay long term.
Since they are not Jewish, they are not citizens and are denied access to free health care. Their children, many of whom were born in Israel, are not granted Israeli passports and must attend separate schools. Last May, Israel required that 20% of asylum seekers’ salaries be deposited into a fund that would be released to them only if they relocate.
The asylum seekers, most escaping genocide in Sudan or repression in Eritrea, first arrived to Israel in 2006 after crossing Egypt’s Sinai Desert. The influx largely stopped when Israel completed building a high-tech fence along its 150-mile border with Egypt in 2013.
Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in August that the government can legally deport African migrants willing to relocate to another safe country but could not continue to detain migrants who refused to relocate for more than two months.
In September, Netanyahu again denounced African asylum seekers as “illegal infiltrators,” as he posed with elderly residents of South Tel Aviv, where thousands of African migrants live. He promised to “return the area” to its Israeli residents.
Israel’s Channel 2 reported that Israel has arranged for more than 2,000 African asylum seekers to resettle in Canada and several hundred others to go to the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States and other Western countries.
Helen Kidane, an asylum seeker who is director of the Eritrean Women’s Community Center in Tel Aviv, deplored efforts to force asylum seekers to leave.
“What they don’t understand is that we’re here to save our life,” said Kidane, who has a 4-year-old daughter born here. “On one hand, we can’t leave here, but on the other, we’ve all given up.”