An appellate custody tribunal has ordered the state to grant temporary residency to five residents of Sudan’s Darfur region due to what it called an unreasonable delay in processing their asylum requests.
The Jerusalem tribunal said it was unacceptable for the state to take more than a year to process asylum requests, as such delays cause asylum seekers disproportionate harm.
The appellants, all Darfuris in their 30s, arrived in Israel via Egypt between 2008 and 2012. They received visas that must be renewed every two months, which left them in a permanent state of uncertainty and without benefits such as health care. All filed asylum requests but never received an answer.
Some 2,300 Darfuris have filed asylum requests in Israel, but so far only one has actually received asylum. Five others were rejected, and all the rest are still awaiting a response.
In his ruling, the custody judge, Marat Dorfman, wrote that the state’s refusal to make a decision for such an “unreasonable length of time” exceeded the bounds of proper conduct and “disproportionately” harmed the appellants. He therefore gave them temporary residency, which is what they would have received as refugees.
This entitles them to work permits, benefits and travel documents that allow them to return to the country if they leave.
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The Population, Immigration and Border Authority attributed the delay to its wait for a decision by Interior Minister Arye Dery. Therefore the tribunal had no right to interfere, it said.
“The tribunal must not substitute its own judgment for that of the interior minister,” the state argued in its brief, adding that Dery was currently in talks with other officials about an across-the-board solution that would apply to many asylum seekers, including the appellants.
The authority also blamed the delay on the large backlog of asylum requests.
But Dorfman rejected these arguments. The state did not respond not because of “an exceptional workload” but because of “a declared policy of not deciding on asylum requests from residents of Sudan’s Darfur region,” he wrote.
“I’m aware of the respondent’s explanation that its failure to decide on individual asylum requests by Darfuris stemmed from the state’s desire to find an across-the-board solution that would affect all asylum seekers from Darfur,” he added.
“But the tribunal doesn’t accept this explanation, because I believe that finding an across-the-board solution should not be combined with a prolonged and deliberate refusal to decide on a specific applicant’s asylum request.”
The state did not allow Darfuris to submit asylum requests until 2012. But once it did, “it assumed an obligation to consider asylum requests within a reasonable time frame,” Dorfman said. And though no regulations specify what that time frame should be, “I believe a period of 12 months from the day the asylum request is submitted is a reasonable period for deciding on the request.”
All five appellants have waited longer than that, he noted.
The appellants were represented by two attorneys from the HIAS Israel aid organization, Asaf Weitzen and Nimrod Avigal, who welcomed the decision.
“The fact that people seeking asylum wait 10 years or more for a decision on their cases while being called ‘infiltrators’ and forced to deal with jails, a criminal taxation policy, frequent visits to the Interior Ministry and a lack of medical services is additional proof that the Israeli asylum system exists outside the law and far from what’s accepted internationally,” Weitzen said. “Crimes are being committed here, and the day will come when those responsible are called to account.”
One appellant, Taydin Haroun Guma Abakkar, has been awaiting a decision on his asylum request for 10 years. Born in Darfur in 1980, he fled in fear for his life in 2007. He spent about a year in Egypt, where he registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, before entering Israel in February 2008 and filing an asylum request with the UNHCR.
In 2011 he began studying for a bachelor’s degree in government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, with specialties in conflict resolution and counterterrorism. He graduated three years later and went on for a master’s degree in political science and communications.
He completed his master’s at the IDC despite being accepted into a program in London, because his temporary visa wouldn’t let him return to Israel if he left. Last year he set up the African Student Union in Israel, which works to help African students.
Upon hearing the tribunal’s verdict, Abakkar was overwhelmed. “I don’t know if I’m more happy or surprised,” he said. “I didn’t think Israel would grant me status; I thought I’d keep going every two months to renew my visa. I’m reluctant to rejoice too quickly after waiting for years; I’ll truly rejoice only when I have my new visa in my hand.”
As he put it, “My life will change the moment I get status. I haven’t seen my family in 14 years. When I get status, I can finally meet with them. Not in Sudan but maybe in Ethiopia or another country. People here don’t understand how hard it is when you know your family is someplace dangerous and you’re far away. The knowledge that now I’ll have health insurance, that I’m not in danger of deportation – that changes my whole life.”
Another appellant, Omid Shakour, 30, came to Israel 2010 after 27 relatives, including his mother, were killed in Sudan. He spent 18 months in the Holot detention center, during which his brothers were also killed. He too is now studying at the IDC, for a degree in economics and business administration.
“I didn’t come to Israel because I wanted to; there’s no place a person feels as comfortable as in the place where his childhood memories are,” he said. “I came to get asylum and protection. They put me in jail even though I committed no crime, but at least I was protected.”
Shakour too has high hopes for his new status, including the ability to work to help pay for his studies. “Life without status is a life of pressure and fear,” he said. “I hope that now I’ll have more peace of mind and security.”