A leading spokesman for African immigrants living illegally in Israel began an indefinite sentence at a detention center Monday after Israel's Supreme Court declined to freeze his detention order.
Mutasim Ali, who has challenged Israel's policies toward the more than 50,000 African immigrants living in the country without permission, was ordered three months ago to report to Holot, a detention center in the middle of the Negev desert.
Ali challenged the order in court, arguing that he and thousands of other immigrants ordered to detention were political refugees who should receive asylum hearings. The Tel Aviv District Court ruled against him. Ali's appeal will be heard on May 21 by the Supreme Court, which recently rejected a request that his detention order be frozen.
Ali, who was born in Sudan's restive Darfur region, says he crossed into Israel from Egypt several years ago in order to seek protection. He is part of a wave of recent immigrants from Sudan and Eritrea who say they are refugees fleeing conflict and repressive governments.
Israel's leaders believe most are economic migrants who should leave. But Israel can't send immigrants back to conflict-ridden nations because international law forbids the deportation of people fearing for their safety at home. In an effort to persuade the Africans to go back on their own, Israel has offered $3,500 payments to those who agree to leave and has ordered thousands to Holot for indefinite sentences.
Officials call Holot an "open" facility because it is not locked during the day, although detainees are required to check in with guards throughout the day and sleep there at night. The center has been criticized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which issued a statement urging Israel not to hold asylum seekers in indefinite detention.