Israel releases hundreds of migrants from desert facility

A recent court decision ordered Israel to release the illegal migrants held for more than a year

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Israel on Tuesday began releasing hundreds of African migrants from a detention center in the middle of the desert after a court order, but the asylum-seekers were barred from entering two cities.

A recent court decision ordered Israel to release the illegal migrants held for more than a year at a detention center in the Negev desert, a ruling affecting 1,178 of the asylum-seekers.

Israel released an initial 750 on Tuesday in small groups, while the remainder will be freed on Wednesday, said Sivan Weizman, a prison service spokeswoman.

Facing hostility from many residents and fearing tensions, authorities have barred them from entering Tel Aviv and the southern city of Eilat, where African migrant communities have sprung up.

As in other parts of the world, illegal migration has become a high-profile issue in Israel, with right-wing politicians calling for action to limit it and rights groups urging the government to accept asylum-seekers from countries such as Eritrea.

A number of those released from the Holot Detention Centre on Tuesday waited at nearby bus stops in search of a ride anywhere.

“We don’t know where to go, where we’re going to sleep tonight,” said Salah, a 33-year-old Sudanese man who has been in Israel for nine years, including 20 months at the detention center.

“They gave us a paper that says ‘prohibited from going to Eilat or Tel Aviv’, but that’s where we know people. I don’t have money to rent an apartment. Where do I go now?”

Israel’s supreme court two weeks ago overturned a provision of a law that would have allowed illegal immigrants to be held for up to 20 months without trial. It ruled that illegal migrants held for more than a year should be released within two weeks.

Official figures show 45,000 illegal immigrants are in Israel, with almost all of them from Eritrea and Sudan. About two-thirds are Eritrean, with Israel reachable by land.

A recent U.N. report detailed how Eritrea, under Isaias Afwerki’s iron-fisted regime for the past 22 years, has created a repressive system in which people are routinely arrested on a whim, detained, tortured, killed or disappeared.

Most of those in Israel illegally and who have not been detained live in poor areas of southern Tel Aviv, where there have been several protests over their presence.

Israel has had difficulty managing the situation and rarely grants refugee status.

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