HOLOT, ISRAEL —
The Israeli Supreme Court is due to begin hearings in April on a controversial law that has allowed the government to detain thousands of African migrants who are seeking political asylum.
The migrants, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, say they fled repression in their home countries, but the Israeli government says they are in Israel mainly looking for work.
At the Holot detention center near Israel's border with Egypt, residents were outside one day recently, chatting and passing the time. One of the youngest was Nuraddin Ismail, a slender man from Darfur, Sudan.
Ismail has been a refugee for nearly a decade. He fled his home after government forces destroyed his village and arrested him. He was 16 years old.
"They targeted me as if I belonged to the rebels," he said. "I was arrested twice. That's why I can't live a normal life there like anyone else. So I left my country," he said.
Ismail spent four years in Chad and Libya before crossing Egypt's Sinai desert into Israel. His family remained behind in a refugee camp.
Ismail said many asylum-seekers were killed trying to cross the Sinai. Rights groups say others have been held for ransom, beaten and raped.
Those who make it to Israel are allowed by the government to stay while they apply for political asylum.
In the early years of the refugee movements, some found low-paying jobs, primarily with hotels, restaurants or cleaning companies. Often they would join together in groups to rent a small apartment.
But in the last seven years, their numbers grew to more than 50,000. Many were concentrated in poor urban areas, whose other residents often resented the Africans' presence. The immigrants were blamed for rising crime rates, but police say this is not true.
Alarmed by the growing number of immigrants as well as by a rise in cross-border terrorist attacks, the Israeli government built a five-meter-high fence with sophisticated detection equipment along the border with Egypt . The fence, 230 kilometers long, was completed in January 2013, and it has almost eliminated the influx of new migrants.
But the government decided to go further. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told parliament earlier this year that he is "determined to remove from here those who succeeded in entering before we closed the border."
"These are not refugees,” he said. “We are talking about illegal workers infiltrating, and we are determined to bring them to justice."
A law passed in 2012 authorized detention of illegal migrants for up to three years, but Israeli courts overturned it.
The government passed a new law last year that allows it to detain illegal migrants for up to one year at the Holot facility.
Israel also offered migrants $3,500 and a free ticket home - or to a third country - Uganda, according to news reports, which both Israeli and Ugandan governments have denied.
The law allows the government to detain indefinitely those migrants who refuse the return offer. Israeli rights groups are challenging the law before the Supreme Court.
In December authorities began ordering asylum-seekers to report to Holot or be sent to nearby Saharonim prison. They say Holot's population has doubled each month, reaching 1,500 in March, according to Interior Minister Giedon Sa'ar. It can hold up to 3,000 people.
The government calls Holot an "open facility." Residents are allowed to leave during the day, but they must report in three times during the hours they are outside. Failing to do so could send a camp resident to Saharonim prison. Visitors, including reporters, are not allowed.
The rules allow the residents enough time to visit Beer Sheba, the regional hub, one hour away. It is not enough time to travel to Tel Aviv or central Israel, however, where most of the migrants' families and friends live.
Thirty-six-year-old Emmanuel Abraha, who arrived in Israel five years ago after deserting from the Eritrean army, said: "Holot is not a prison. But it's certainly not an open facility. There is no trial, but there's no hope you'll be released. It feels like life imprisonment."
He said conditions are difficult. Residents are not allowed to bring in food or have guests.
Thirty-three year-old Adwar Souleiman, who came from Darfur, recalled how many Israelis' forebears suffered for centuries as refugees, and said the African migrants should be treated less harshly.
"We are human beings,” he said. “We fled our country because we have problems," he said. "Israel, like any democratic country, must take responsibility for us. We are not against the government, the citizens or the Jewish religion."
The government said nearly 4,000 migrants have accepted the return offer and left since the beginning of the year. Many others have turned it down, though, saying it is better to live in limbo at Holot.
Nouraddin Ismail said if he returns home, the Sudanese government will suspect him of being an Israeli spy.
"I only have two choices," he said. "I stay here forever, or I go back to my country and get killed."