“Half Freedom” Documentary

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“Half Freedom” is a documentary feature, currently in production, that follows the lives of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers as they are released from Israel’s “Holot” immigration detention center, an “open” prison facility built exclusively for African refugees. Torn away from lives in Israel that took years to build, these men have spent 20 months in an isolated desert prison camp, that they are technically allowed to leave, but must check into several times daily. Upon their release, former detainees are banned from living and working in Tel Aviv and Eilat, the main centers of life for their community.

Traveling between Holot and Tel Aviv, the documentary explores the creative ways African refugees in Israel navigate a system designed to leave them hopeless. “Half Freedom” describes the state these men are left in as they leave detention and venture back into a society where their rights are still severely limited due to their status as African asylum seekers and former detainees.

The Issue:

Israel is currently home to 45,000 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, two countries with documented human rights abuses, and whose refugees are internationally recognized as having valid asylum claims. Most African asylum seekers in Israel first brave a hazardous journey through the Sinai, where they are frequently trafficked and tortured by Egyptian organized crime groups. In 2012 Israel modified it’s already existing “anti-infiltrator” laws to apply to African refugees, criminalizing the act of crossing Israel’s border to seek asylum. The penalty for doing so was an extended stay in “Holot” an “open” detention center deep in the desert, where detainees are allowed to leave but must check in 3-5 times a day. “Holot” literally translates to “dunes” in Hebrew, a reference to the prison’s desolate location in the Negev desert, just north of the Israeli-Egyptian border.

August 2015 saw the first mass release of prisoners from Holot. The prisoner release was orchestrated in order to comply with an Israeli High Court ruling that the 20 month sentences handed down to refugees was “disproportionate.” With only a few weeks notice, over the course of two days the Israeli Prison Service released 1,200 Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, giving them 50 shekels to get on a bus and leave after nearly two years in detention.

After being released, former Holot detainees were banned from living and working in Tel Aviv and Eilat, which were centers of their community and the primary locations where they could access healthcare and other services. This decision made these cities de jure Sundown towns for 1,200 African refugees, forcing many to be homeless for extended periods of time.

Today Holot is still full, and likely to expand. Israeli authorities continually summon new refugees to the isolated desert detention center. Holot is widely considered part of an open policy of making African refugees’ lives so insecure that they will “self-deport” and seek asylum elsewhere. To this day only a handful of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees have ever been given asylum in Israel.