by Tamara Santos Traubmann
HOLOT, Israel, June 19 (Xinhua) -- Anwar Suleiman, a refugee from Sudan's Darfur region, hoped he could finally reached a safe harbor when he crossed the Egyptian border into Israel.
But recently, as Israel toughened its policies on African asylum seekers, he was sent to a detention center in a desert, where he was held along with hundreds of other asylum seekers, waiting for his fate to be decided.
In the blazing sun on the sands outside "Holot," a remote detention center in the Negev Desert in southern Israel, Suleiman told Xinhua he hoped the Israeli government will give them time until their homelands become free of domestic conflict.
Israel established Holot in an effort to cut the number of about 46,000 Africans that streamed in this country over recent years. Israel claimed it is an "open" center, with sleeping facilities and three meals a day, but the center, surrounded by razor wire, has a night curfew and a daily head count, and residents are forbidden to work outside.
According to Prison Service spokeswoman Sivan Weizman, about 1,750 Africans now at the center, which could hold up to 3,000 detainees.
As Europe struggles to stem the flood of refugees from Africa and the Middle East who attempted to reach its shores by crossing the lethal Mediterranean, Israeli Interior Ministry has begun to inform Africans in Holot that they must leave within thirty days for a third African country, most probably Uganda or Ruanda, or face imprisonment for an indefinite time period.
A statement released on March 31 by the Interior Ministry announced it had "achieved an arrangement with several African countries, which are willing to accept infiltrators," referring to a common term in Israel for asylum seekers.
Under the arrangement, Israel is offering 3,500-U.S. dollar-payment and a one-way ticket to every asylum seeker who would agree to leave the country.
According to Gilad Erdan, then Interior Minister, the deal "will encourage infiltrators to leave Israel in a safe and dignified manner."
However, it was not well received by the refugees. "Israel has given a difficult choice: go to a country that isn't safe for us or face jail," said Aman Beyene, a 38-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker who has spent 15 months in Holot.
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a projects director at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants in Tel Aviv, said that data from over 40 asylum seekers who have left for Ruanda, Uganda or Sudan within the so-called "voluntary departure plan" show that they were stripped off their Israeli travel documents as soon as they arrived at the airport, rendering them into illegal residents.
They are frequently jailed and required to pay a bribe to avoid being sent back to their country of origin, she added.
According to recent official figures, since the beginning of 2014, about 1,500 asylum seekers have "voluntarily" left to a third country, in addition to over 7,000 asylum seekers who returned to their homelands during this period.
Beyene said that the atmosphere in Holot is gloomy. Many people are depressed, with no jobs and an uncertain future.
His speech became heavy when he talked of his compatriot, Tesfay Kidane, who was beheaded by the Islamic State (IS) in Libya two months ago. He said that Kidane felt like he had no choice, and agreed to Israel's offer to emigrate to Uganda. From there he wound up in Sudan, then in Libya, in hopes that he would be smuggled into Europe. But IS caught him first.
Since then two more Eritreans were executed by IS because of their Christianity, said Tsurkov.
Suleiman, 35, said he felt trapped. Israel is doing everything to make him leave, but he cannot return to his own country, hard hit by years of civil war.
He reached Israel in 2008, and worked in menial jobs in Tel Aviv, before he was finally arrested and sent to Holot 15 months ago.
The Immigration Authority has yet to reply to his request for refugee status, although it was filed over a year ago. But he has little hope, as no other survivor of Darfur was granted with refugee status in Israel.
"Internationally, over 80 percent of the Eritreans have been recognized as refugees and about 60 percent of the Sudanese," Tsurkov says, "but in Israel only four Eritreans and no Sudanese have been granted similar status."
Israel, a state established by immigrants, encourages people of Jewish background to immigrate to it and even offers them support. In the 1990s the country absorbed about a million immigrants from Russia.
However, the waves of asylum seekers, most of them Eritrean Christians or Sudanese Muslims, are seen by the government as a threat to Israel's Jewish identity, critics of the government's refugee policies said.
Most of African refugees live in the impoverished neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, with frequent frictions with local residents.
"We are not criminals," said Muhammad Abdullah, another refugee from Darfur and a detainee in Holot. "Why they make us prisoners?"
"If I had somewhere to go, I would go, unfortunately I have nowhere," he said, adding "we ask Israel to let us stay only temporarily, until one day we can return to our green country. That is my dream. That is what I wait for."