Saharonim - Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Refugees and migrant workers at the Saharonim prison near the border with Egypt, Jan. 15, 2012. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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Sudanese asylum seekers and Israeli human rights groups on Wednesday petitioned a Jerusalem court to prohibit Interior Minister Eli Yishai from rounding up and jailing Sudanese citizens residing in Israel, as he had vowed to do after the Jewish holidays.

Yishai announced the move in late August after obtaining approval from the Prime Minister’s Office. He said that migrants who leave Israel voluntarily before October 15 would receive assistance from his office, while those who don’t would be imprisoned and deported.

The petitioners are asking the Jerusalem District Court to nullify Yishai's decision and to extend residency permits for Sudanese migrants living in Israel under the "collective protection" that has been afforded them.

"The decision to imprison thousands of asylum seekers -- including the victims of trafficking and torture and children including newborn infants -- for an indefinite amount of time in massive cages and in extreme conditions in the desert is hysterical and barbaric," the petitioners wrote in their appeal.

The petition was filed by various human rights groups, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Hotline for Migrant Workers, Assaf, an NGO that aids African migrants, the African Refugee Development Center and Kav LaOved (the Workers' Hotline) on behalf of Sudanese asylum seekers, among them a family from war-torn Darfur. The petition could decide the fate of some 15,000 Sudanese migrants residing in Israel.

The petitioners also included a statement from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the UN agency working to protect and assist refugees worldwide, which said that declarations claiming that citizens of Sudan that are living in Israel are not refugees have no factual or legal basis.

The UN agency said the Interior Ministry has not reviewed asylum requests from Sudanese migrants and accused it of being ill-prepared to do so.

It further said that the rate at which asylum seekers receive refugee status in Israel is the lowest in the Western world, adding that the Africans' lives would be at risk if they were repatriated. The agency said Israel cannot imprison the Sudanese en masse, and that revoking their residency rights would create a grave humanitarian crisis.

"This visa is not a working permit"

The statement from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees also expressed concern about the Interior Ministry's decision to stop issuing "conditional releases" for the migrants. According to one NGO, the ministry decided in 2010 to mark such "conditional release" papers with the statement “This visa is not a working permit.” However, the government hadn't really enforced the policy, which enabled migrants to find work.

The UN agency said that Israel does not provide sufficient support, housing and food to migrants, leaving them entirely dependent on finding work on the sly because they cannot be hired legally. Denying asylum seekers access to the job market harms their ability to support themselves, the UN agency said, adding that such a situation would create a humanitarian crisis and potentially lead to homelessness and a denial of human dignity, which contradict the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention to which Israel is a signatory.

Israel's immigration police are expected to begin enforcing Yishai's decision on October 15. Yishai has also said he intends to do everything in his power to get court approval to jail and deport migrants from Eritrea as well.

According to NGOs, the majority of the estimated 60,000 migrants in Israel are from Eritrea and Sudan, while others are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast.

Israel classifies Sudan as an enemy state, to which it cannot repatriate Sudanese nationals. Sudan also perceives Israel as an enemy state and even has a law forbidding its citizens from entering Israel.

Eritrea has diplomatic relations with Israel, but it views its nationals here as deserters from the army, leaving those who return in danger of being subjected to heavy penalties; their lives might even be at risk. In addition, senior officials in the Sudanese government have said that its citizens residing in Israel will one day see justice done.

According to the rights groups that filed the petition, "The cruel imprisonment that the Interior Minister decided on is arbitrary, because today there is no legal or practical possibility of repatriating Sudanese citizens, including the victims of genocide, to their home country."

The petition also claims that the minister has no legal authority to order that migrants be imprisoned. That authority is in the hands of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has not granted it to Yishai.

Attorney Oded Feller, of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said he regrets that "the Prime Minister and the Attorney General aren't reining in the Interior Minister and are allowing him to behave as he pleases."