Israel has not yet devised a policy covering all aspects of requests for asylum by citizens of Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, the state has acknowledged.
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The acknowledgement came in a response from the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority to an inquiry from Mutasim Ali, one of the leaders of the Darfur asylum seekers in Israel, who filed an asylum request two-and-a-half years ago but has yet to receive an answer.
Ali, who has been detained for more than a year in the Holot detention center in the south of the country, is pursuing legal steps to gain his release.
The delay in devising a policy was due to the formation of a new government following the March Knesset election, according to a government lawyer.
Be’er Sheva District Court President Joseph Elon had ordered the government to “make every effort” to respond to Ali’s asylum request by last Sunday, but no answer has been forthcoming.
In response to a request filed by Asaf Weitzen, a lawyer with the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Population and Immigration Authority lawyer Shunit Shahar replied: “In recent months, there have been a number of discussions with senior officials at the ministry in an effort to come to a settled position for the Interior Ministry with regard to the Sudanese population from the Darfur region. However, the process of forming the new government and the appointment of a new interior minister have, due to the nature of things, led to a delay of a decision.”
Silvan Shalom, she noted, only took office as interior minister three weeks ago and has since had two discussions on the issue.
The committee that reviews asylum requests heard Ali’s case a week-and-a-half ago, Shahar said. Beyond the individual issues involved in his case, Ali had raised generic questions relating to the situation of Sudanese from Darfur in Israel. As a result, she explained, the members of the panel were of the opinion that his case could not be divorced from the general situation of asylum seekers from Darfur.
A decision on Ali’s petition was postponed to June 24 – “following the development of a general policy,” Shahar said.
Shahar’s response appears to contradict the government’s previous position that each asylum request must be decided on its individual merits.
The lawyer rejected Ali’s assertion that the United Nations Commission for Refugees had recommended that he be given refugee status, noting that authority to make such a decision was transferred to the Interior Ministry’s population authority in 2009.
Authority data indicates that 3,165 Sudanese nationals, mostly from Darfur, filed asylum requests between 2009 and the beginning of this year. As of February 2015, the government had responded to only 45 of the requests and had not granted any of them refugee status in Israel. In the interim, about a third of the Sudanese asylum seekers either left Israel or withdrew their requests. The rest are still waiting for a ruling on their cases.
Human rights organizations contend that the failure to issue decisions on the requests is a deliberate government policy, designed to avoid recognizing the asylum seekers as refugees with the rights that such a status confers. For its part, the authority stated: “This involves a complex and important issue, which requires attention to our position on the subject.”
Hotline for Migrant Workers lawyer Asaf Weitzen said: “The first of the people from Darfur came to Israel about 10 years ago. Since then, they [the authorities] have been telling us they are not refugees but rather ‘illegal infiltrators.’ Over the past three years, they have also been imprisoning them at Prison Service facilities by virtue of the three amendments to the illegal infiltration law.
“More than a year ago, the Interior Ministry informed the Supreme Court that [the cases of] asylum seekers were being examined in a professional manner and that priority was being given to Mutasim [Ali] and all of those like him who were being held by the Prison Service.
“Now, however, we discover that the decisions are not professional [in nature] but are dependent upon the political level and that there isn’t and never has been any priority regarding the asylum requests of Mutasim and the others from Darfur; that up to now, the Interior Ministry hasn’t even bothered to devise a position regarding them. An end must be put to the unfair treatment of asylum seekers, which has already become part of the landscape.”