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African migrants in Israel protest detentions

JERUSALEM — Chanting slogans and calling for freedom, some 200 African migrants and Israeli activists ended a two-day march with a rally on Tuesday denouncing Israel's policy of detaining those illegally in the country.

The symbolic march began Sunday when about 150 migrants left an "open" detention facility in a remote area of southern Israel to make the two-day trip on foot and by bus that concluded with the protest outside the prime minister's office in Jerusalem.

The migrants want the state to end its policy of detentions and recognize them as refugees.

Under a law amended last week, Israel can detain African migrants without trial for a year, after which they are moved to the new "open" detention facility known as Holot — which critics say is an attempt to prod them to voluntarily leave Israel.

The migrants are allowed to leave the facility but are required to report back three times a day and may remain there indefinitely. Some 500 migrants now reside in the new facility.

"We're talking about people who have nothing to lose," said Michal Rotem, an activist who took part in the march. "This is their last chance to come and say... we want our freedom."

Protesters held up signs reading "refugees, not criminals" and "walk for freedom and humanity." A number of police officers were at the scene but did not immediately break up the rally. The migrants may face arrest for not reporting and returning to the Holot facility over the past two days.

Israel has attempted to ebb the flow of African migrants, who come mainly from Sudan and Eritrea and now number about 53,000. Several tactics have been used to get their numbers down, including building a fence along the border with Egypt, providing financial assistance to those leaving voluntarily and appealing to a third country to host some until they are able to return home.

Since the fence was built last year, some 2,000 migrants have trickled into Israel and were detained under a law allowing authorities to keep them jailed for up to three years without trial. That law was struck down by the Supreme Court earlier this year but was replaced last week with an amendment. That amendment has been challenged by human rights groups in Israel's high court.

Most of the African migrants who made it to Israel over the past decade claim they were escaping forced conscription in Eritrea or war in Sudan. Critics claim that most are job seekers attracted to Israel's robust economy and plentiful work opportunities in hotels, restaurants and cleaning services.

As their numbers swelled, the migrants began to be seen as a threat to Israel's Jewish character and as a burden on the Tel Aviv areas where many of them live.

Israeli authorities say the detentions discourage migrants by denying them a livelihood, while activists say detaining migrants is an attempt to pressure them to leave the country voluntarily.

African migrants designated as refugees may be released from detention, but advocates say Israel has dragged its feet on thousands of refugee applications.

Israel cannot forcibly evict the migrants because of dangers in their home countries.