Israeli authorities broke up a demonstration outside the parliament building on Tuesday, taking away some 150 African migrants who had joined the protest against Israel’s policy of detaining those illegally in the country.
The demonstration capped a two-day march by the migrants, who fled a detention center in southern Israel on Sunday and made their way to Jerusalem to draw attention to their plight. They want the government to end the detentions and recognize them as refugees.
“We’re talking about people who have nothing to lose,” said Michal Rotem, an Israeli activist who took part in the march. “This is their last chance to come and say… we want our freedom.”
Under a law amended last week, Israel can detain African migrants without trial for a year, after which they are moved to a new “open” detention facility in a remote area of southern Israel known as Holot.
The migrants are allowed to leave the facility but are required to report back three times a day and may remain there indefinitely. Some 500 migrants now reside in the new facility. Critics say the policy is an attempt to prod the migrants to leave Israel.
The Africans say they are fleeing hardship and danger in their native countries. Israel says they are economic migrants looking for work.
At Tuesday’s demonstration, protesters held up signs reading “refugees, not criminals” and “walk for freedom and humanity.”
“We come here to ask for protection. We don’t want to go back to our country,” said Brahani Beraki, a 29-year-old from Eritrea, whose government is widely accused of torture, restrictions on freedom of expression and other human rights violations. “Our country is a bad situation … We need to save our life here.”
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said some 180 people were detained and the area was cleared out. He said they were expected to be returned to detention facilities in the southern desert. No injuries were reported.
“Just as we are determined to protect our borders, we’re determined to enforce the law,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday. “The infiltrators who were transferred to the special detention facility can either stay there or go back to their home countries.
The symbolic march began Sunday when about 150 migrants left Holot to make the two-day trip on foot and by bus to Jerusalem.
Israel has attempted to ebb the flow of African migrants, who come mainly from Sudan and Eritrea and now number about 53,000.
It has built a fence along the border with Egypt, all but stopping the inflow. It has also offered cash incentives to coax people into leaving voluntarily and appealed to an unidentified third country to host some of the Africans until they are able to return home.
In the early years of the influx, the Africans were tolerated. But those who have arrived since last year can be detained immediately.
The law initially allowed Israel to jail them for up to three years without trial. That law was struck down by the Supreme Court earlier this year but was replaced last week with the amended version. The new law, with its one-year detention and the “open” detention facility, is being challenged by human rights groups in Israel’s high court.
Most of the African migrants who made it to Israel over the past decade claim they were escaping forced conscription in Eritrea or war in Sudan. Critics claim that most are job seekers attracted to Israel’s robust economy and plentiful work opportunities in hotels, restaurants and cleaning services.
The influx has created a dilemma for Israel. On one hand, many Israeli feel the country, formed on the ashes of the Holocaust, has an obligation to help those in need.
As their numbers swelled, the migrants began to be seen as a threat to Israel’s Jewish character and as a burden on the Tel Aviv areas where many of them live.
African migrants designated as refugees may be released from detention, but advocates say Israel has dragged its feet on thousands of refugee applications.
Israel cannot forcibly evict the migrants because of dangers in their home countries.