HOLOT, Israel — As Europe struggles to stem a spring flood of migrants from Africa and the Middle East trying to cross a deadly Mediterranean Sea, Israel has begun to toughen its stance toward refugees, telling unwanted Africans here they must leave now or face an indefinite stay in prison.
Israeli authorities are sending letters to the first of 45,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, informing them they have 30 days to accept Israel’s offer of $3,500 in cash and a one-way ticket home or to an unnamed third country in Africa, or face incarceration at Saharonim prison.
Israeli leaders have proclaimed that their tough approach — building a fence along the country’s border, denying work permits for illegal migrants, forcing them into a detention center in the desert — may ultimately save lives by dissuading migrants from attempting a perilous journey. Critics of the Israeli policy counter that a country built by refugees should be more accepting of those fleeing war, poverty and oppression.
But these days, even liberal Europe is considering a more muscular approach. The European Union began a push Monday for U.N. authorization to deploy military force in the Mediterranean to stop migrant smuggling ships.
The new measures to press the Africans to leave Israel come at a time of heightened fear among the refugees, who were stunned last month by a widely circulated video allegedly showing three Eritreans who left Israel killed by Islamic State militants in Libya. Friends and relatives said they had traveled there in a bid to reach Europe.
“We saw the video, but we thought maybe it wasn’t true, maybe it was just a hoax,” said Aman Beyene, an Eritrean asylum seeker who has spent 14 months at an Israeli detention center.
“Then we spoke to an Eritrean boy who had witnessed the killings, and we knew it was true,” Beyene said.
The 38-year-old Eritrean accountant sat at a picnic table in the dirt parking lot of the Holot detention facility, a compound of single-story cement-block dormitories housing 2,000 Africans, surrounded by a fence spooled with razor wire in the Negev desert.
Beyene spoke slowly as he recalled watching the video showing a man thought to be his friend Tesfay Kidane, 29, beheaded on a beach in Libya by Muslim extremists. He said Kidane felt despondent being cooped up at the Holot facility, so he accepted the Israelis’ offer to be flown to a third country — likely Uganda or Rwanda — and from there made his way to Libya, where he was kidnapped by the Islamic State.
Though the detainees at Holot are free to leave the compound during the day, the nearest city is an hour’s bus ride away and the men are forbidden to work. If they fail to return by nightfall, they are sent to a prison across the street.
Interviews with Eritreans and Sudanese at Holot suggest that many are still dreaming of reaching Europe through the chaos of Libya — despite knowing that more than 1,800 Africans have drowned in the Mediterranean this year and others have been taken captive by the Islamic State.
“Being beheaded by ISIS or sinking on a boat is scary,” said Mutasim Ali, 28, who arrived in Israel in 2009 from the Darfur region in Sudan and has spent the past year in the detention center. “But you can’t really stay here, wasting your life, doing nothing.”
He pointed to the men like him who spend their days milling about in circles, staring at their cellphones, waiting for the next meal.
Before Israel began cracking down on African migrants a few years ago, the Africans were highly visible in bustling cities, working in kitchens and doing menial labor. There are still neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv filled with Africans. Many Israelis complained they were being “invaded.”
Israel is a nation built by Jewish refugees, and those with Jewish ancestry are encouraged, even courted, to move here and provided wide-ranging assistance. A million Russian speakers came in the 1990s, and Jews from Ethiopia continue to arrive each month.
But fearful that a wave of impoverished Africans, mostly Muslims from Sudan and Christians from Eritrea, would overwhelm the Jewish nature of the state, Israel spent more than $350 million to build a 140-mile fence along its entire border with Egypt. Undocumented migrants to Israel are called “infiltrators” by the Israeli government.
The steel barrier, completed in 2013, stopped illegal entry cold: More than 10,000 Africans arrived in 2012; today almost no one attempts the trip.
The fence also shut down human traffickers in the Sinai Peninsula who had become increasingly sadistic, with refugees describing how they were imprisoned in “torture camps” where the Bedouin smugglers raped women and burned captives with molten plastic to extort relatives to send more money to free them.
As they’ve watched Europe being hit by a wave of African refugees, Israeli leaders say their policies are fair.
“While there are differences between us — the migrants traveling to Europe must cross a sea while those heading for Israel have a direct overland route — you can see the righteousness of our government’s policy to build a fence on the border with Egypt, which blocks the migrant workers before they enter Israel,” wrote Israeli Transportation Minister Israel Katz on his Facebook page last month.
Yonatan Jakubowicz of the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, a think tank aimed at promoting “a coherent immigration policy for Israel,” pointed out that many countries simply jail illegal migrants or deport them immediately, which Israel did not do to the Africans.
He said the new measures are designed to help those who have been denied asylum or have not applied for asylum to be returned home or to third countries.
“What we are saying is that Israel is not sending anyone by force to a third country,” he said.
Over the past two years, more than 9,000 Africans have accepted the Israelis’ offer and departed.
“It is a form of coercion, but it is not forced deportation,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy director of an Israeli human rights group called Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, which has taken up the cause of the African refugees.
More than 300,000 Eritreans have been offered asylum around the world; more than 84 percent are recognized as refugees or offered complimentary protection in other host countries, according to the United Nations. In Israel, the recognition rate is less than 1 percent for the past six years. Only four Eritreans and no Sudanese have been accepted for asylum, Rozen said.
“Israel should do more,” she said.
Rozen said the Sudanese, who fled genocide and war, “are now waiting in line to go back,” having concluded there is no future for them in Israel.
Eritreans are more fearful. They fled a dictatorship that conscripts men and women into years of military service that human rights groups compare to virtual slavery. If the Eritreans return, the advocates say, they are jailed and tortured.
Even so, according to Israeli authorities, about 1,500 asylum seekers have volunteered to leave to unnamed third countries in Africa.
In letters to Eritrean refugees at the Holot detention center, the Israeli government promises that “money will be given to you at the airport in a secure manner. When you arrive at the third country, people will receive you at the airport and give you information about life in the country and other important information.”
Eritrean activists in Israel say they are not welcomed at all, but find their documents seized upon arrival, are shaken down for bribes and are generally shunned.
Israel is reportedly in negotiations for African nations to accept more refugees and for the creation of a more transparent process — instead of the secretive one pursued today, in which Israeli officials decline to discuss the voluntary returns with the media and do not tell the refugees where they are going until they are handed a plane ticket on the day of departure.
The model of paying a third country to accept unwanted refugees is a new idea. Israeli media have speculated that Israel could offer technology, favorable contracts, arms or other assistance, including cash, to countries that would accept the Africans and give them temporary visas.
Meseret Fisahaie was born in Israel to Eritrean refugees who came here in the 1970s. She works as a translator and interviewer with the Hotline group. Her relative Kidane was beheaded by ISIS.
“He was a quiet man, a gentle man,” she remembered.
Kidane worked for seven years cleaning hotel rooms and washing dishes in Tel Aviv, jobs many Israelis shun.
“I couldn’t stop him from going,” she said. “I had a bad feeling about this. People ask me now, what should they do? I tell them try to stay. Maybe things will change.”
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.