Holot: A forgotten persecution


Holot was originally built in 2014 for Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, but now mainly houses Eritreans. Behind the wire and searchlights are over 3,000 men, 95% of whom are Christians. Women, children and the elderly Eritreans are not detained: most eke out a living doing menial work in Israeli cities, sometimes assisted by aid organisations such as the Eritrean Women’s Community Centre (EWCC) in Tel Aviv, which is funded by Barnabas Aid.

Holot detention centre in the Negev Desert of Israel: an Eritrean Christian asylum-seeker considers his future
Holot detention centre in the Negev Desert of Israel: an Eritrean Christian asylum-seeker considers his future

The majority of Eritreans fled their home country because of either religious persecution or conscription: military service is indefinite and can last years, even decades. About 36,000 Eritrean asylum seekers currently live in Israel, but are not recognised as refugees. They are unable to access education, employment, healthcare and social services. The estimated 7,000 Eritrean women are particularly isolated.

The Eritrean Women’s Community Centre (EWCC) in Tel Aviv is an initiative designed and run independently by a group of Eritrean Christians. Established in November 2011, the centre provides Eritrean women with a safe space as well as access to important services. Upon arrival in Israel, they face challenges such as changing family structures, language barriers and little knowledge of their rights. Furthermore, due to a lack of available social services and intense economic instability, these women are in desperate need of both guidance and support to help them recover from their recent traumas. A range of EWCC social initiatives and programmes – from psychological trauma counselling, family health workshops, women’s enrichment and vocational courses, to information and referral services – now reaches over 800 Eritrean women annually and another 600 Eritrean families and men.

An EWCC small–business workshop in progress, in Tel Aviv

Eritrea, a violent totalitarian communist regime, has an appalling record when it comes to state-sponsored religious persecution, second only to North Korea. Certain Christian denominations bear the brunt of this persecution. Religious gatherings, private worship and religious weddings are more often than not banned. Gatherings, when they do occur, are subject to police brutality and mass arrests. Victims are often detained for months at a time – sometimes in extreme, barbaric conditions such as unventilated, overcrowded shipping containers – and subjected to regular beatings. Literally hundreds of pastors have fled the country in the past decade. Many of them are now in Holot. One relates:

“My name is Tesfabrhan . . . I left Eritrea because of religious persecution. I have been in Israel for over five years. I am now persecuted by two governments that have failed to protect me: the Eritrean government that forced me to leave my country and my family, and the Israeli government that ignores my asylum request and treats me like a criminal by putting me in Holot … I am a Sunday school teacher and preacher. I preach in the prison. But it is difficult, I am continuously treated unfairly by the prison guards.”

Working closely with EWCC, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants is a Jewish human rights organisation in Israel whose aim is to protect and promote the rights of refugees and migrants. There is a groundswell of Jewish sympathy for the plight of Christian refugees in the Middle East. In 2015 the late Lord Weidenfeld – who in 1938 arrived with the “Kindertransport” as a desperate Jewish refugee in England escaping the Nazis and was taken in by Christians – revealed how he was involved with Barnabas Aid’s Operations Safe Havens: his goal was to rescue 2,000 Christian families. The Rothschild family also supported Operation Safe Havens as well as other Jewish leaders and organisations. The State of Israel also indicated its willingness to assist Christian refugees fleeing the Middle East.

Eritrean children demonstrate at an EWCC rally in Tel Aviv
Eritrean children demonstrate at an EWCC rally in Tel Aviv

Little allure in the “promised land”

The flood of Eritrean asylum seekers to Israel has slowed to a trickle as word spreads of their treatment on arrival. Often running a gauntlet on foot across the desert sands of the Sahel and the Sinai, the ravages of human traffickers, thieves, predators and thirst took a pitiful toll on the asylum seekers in their quest to reach Israel: kidnap, rape, disease, torture and death were not uncommon. Families are split up, often for years at a time, as either husbands flee Eritrea because of persecution or wives flee because their husbands have been incarcerated with the likelihood that they would be detained too.

Wives and children of Holot detainees protest
Wives and children of Holot detainees protest

But in Israel, where they had hoped for freedom and safety, they find persecution again. On arrival, the allure of the “promised land” does not materialise: asylum applications remain unprocessed – only eight Eritreans have ever been granted asylum (mainly for media attention) – and refugee status is denied, in spite of the fact that Israel acceded to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, and is itself a country founded by persecuted refugees.

Men who have arrived in Israel without their families are sent for a time to the already overcrowded Holot where conditions are bleak: Christian religious practice and prayer gatherings are banned, food is inadequate and visitors are forbidden from bringing in supplementary rations; there is no heating. Detainees are not allowed to study and not allowed to work. There is one doctor on site who dispenses the same medicine for every problem.


The “voluntary return” process

In 2014 Holot inmates were offered three choices: 1) repatriation to Eritrea, 2) remain at the Holot detention centre, or 3) accept US $3,500 cash and a free one-way flight to a “third country” which turned out to be Rwanda or Uganda.

To date, over 3,000 Eritreans have accepted the last choice, but often at their peril. In both African states, the Eritreans have no rights, they do not speak the language and there are scarcely any jobs. Few have stayed, with many heading north through Egypt or Libya to attempt the treacherous Mediterranean crossing to Italy or Greece. It is known that three such deportees from Israel were captured by Islamic State in Libya and beheaded.


What can you do?

Write to your Israeli embassy and urge your Jewish friends or Jewish organisations to do the same: ask that the Israeli government will treat Eritrean asylum-seekers with compassion, either accepting them to settle in Israel and live free and normal lives there, or enabling them to be processed by the United Nations as refugees so that third countries can accept them.

Give a gift to Barnabas Aid to help Eritrean Christian refugees

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