Israel Secretly Repatriated 1,000 to Sudan, Without Informing UN

Though Israel claims the people's return was voluntary, this claim was rejected by UNHCR, which says there is no 'free will from inside a prison.'

Israel has "voluntarily" returned at least 1,000 people to Sudan, an enemy country that has vowed to punish any of its citizens who ever set foot in Israel. The repatriation was done secretly, via a third country, over the last few months, without the knowledge of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Haaretz knows the name of the third country, but is withholding it to avoid harming those who returned via this route.

Though Israel claims the people's return was voluntary, this claim was rejected by UNHCR, which says there is no "free will from inside a prison."

Under a recent amendment to Israel's infiltration law, asylum seekers can be jailed for years without trial. Testimony from within prisons indicates that detainees were also denied access to UNHCR, in violation of the UN convention on the status of refugees, which Israel has signed.

All the Sudanese who left "voluntarily" already had Sudanese passports: Since their presence here was being kept secret, Israel couldn't coordinate their departure with Sudan. An official source said Israel paid for their plane tickets.

In the past, the state has said in court that Israel doesn't deport Sudanese nationals, because "Sudan and Israel are enemy states, such that a Sudanese national who has set foot in Israel can't return to his country for fear of his life, or so he claims." This is in contrast to residents of South Sudan, with which Israel does have relations, and to which it began repatriating people after the country gained its independence from Sudan in 2011.

Aside from the fact that Israel and Sudan are enemies, Sudanese law explicitly forbids its citizens to enter Israel. Its passports even state that they are valid for entry to every country except Israel.

Senior Sudanese officials have also made public threats against Sudanese nationals who fled to Israel. In July 2007, for instance, Sudan's interior minister said that any Sudanese living in Israel would be punished. Shortly afterward, Sudan's refugee commissioner accused Sudanese refugees in Israel of carrying out a "Zionist agenda" against Sudan, and urged the Egyptian authorities to punish Sudanese who try to enter Israel via Egypt.

In September 2007, Sudan's foreign minister said that for a Sudanese to reside in Israel was a criminal offense.

The UN's stance on the issue is also clear. Michael Bavli, UNHCR's representative in Israel, warned the Population, Immigration and Border Authority that "deporting Sudanese to Sudan would be the gravest violation possible of the convention that Israel has signed - a crime never before committed."

The UN refugee convention explicitly states that even someone who wasn't a refugee when he first left his country can become one thereafter, if subsequent events - in this case, entering an enemy country - make it impossible for him to return to his country without risking his life.

Such people, known as "refugees sur place," enjoy all the same protections under the convention as people who originally fled their country due to a "well-founded fear of persecution."

This interpretation has been upheld by Israel's Supreme Court. "All governmental powers - including the power to deport under the Entry into Israel Law - must be exercised on the basis of recognition 'of the value of the human being, and the sanctity of his life and his freedom,'" wrote former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak in one verdict, quoting the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom. "This is the great principle of non-refoulement, under which a person cannot be deported to a place where his life or liberty would be in danger. This principle is enshrined in Article 33 of the refugee convention. It is part of the domestic legislation of many countries ... This is a general principle that isn't limited solely to 'refugees.' It applies in Israel to every governmental authority that deals with deporting someone from Israel."

Harel Locker, director general of the Prime Minister's Office, has also said previously that Sudanese nationals can't be deported back to Sudan, though they could be deported to another country "that agreed to absorb them" and would "guarantee their safety."

Aside from the fact that Sudan and Israel are enemy states, many of the Sudanese in Israel come from the province of Darfur, where they were victims of ethnic persecution and genocide by the regime. Due to these crimes, the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant on charges of genocide against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and other senior Sudanese officials.

Others come from other areas of Sudan, such as the Nuba Mountains or other parts of Kordofan, that have been subjected to brutal attack by the Sudanese government - including aerial bombing, the destruction of entire villages and mass arrests of hundreds of thousands of people - in an effort to suppress what the government terms rebellions. Still others fled Sudan due to religious or ethnic persecution.

The Population, Immigration and Border Authority (part of the Interior Ministry ) responded that "the government's policy of not deporting north Sudanese has not changed."

The Foreign Ministry said: "Since overall responsibility for this issue rests with the Population Authority, we are barred from commenting independently on this issue and refer you to the responsible party - that is, the Population Authority."

The Justice Ministry declined to comment.

Tomer Appelbaum
Tomer Appelbaum
Reuters