Court Orders Israeli Authorities to Explain Refusal to Grant Darfuri Refugees Temporary Residency

While asylum requests by Sudanese, which have been pending for years, are being processed, they 'deserve to live with dignity like in other countries,' says plaintiff

Asylum seekers in Petah Tikva, Israel, February 2019.
Ilan Assayag

Israel's High Court of Justice ordered the state on Wednesday to explain within two months why it is refusing to grant temporary resident status to asylum seekers from the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan until their requests for asylum are decided upon.

The panel – Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, her deputy, Justice Hanan Melcer, and Justice Menahem Mazuz – also ordered the state to explain why it doesn’t immediately issue guidelines for deciding on asylum requests submitted by Sudanese – requests that have been pending for years with no decision – or why it doesn’t immediately decide on the requests in the absence of guidelines.

>> State recognizes some Darfuris qualify as refugees but does not act ■ Interior minister refuses to grant Darfuri asylum seekers resident's visas ahead of election ■ Israel promised millions to rehabilitate south Tel Aviv, but the money is nowhere to be seen

The decision followed hearings this week on two petitions relating to this issue. The first, submitted by attorneys Michal Pomerantz and Carmel Pomerantz, seeks to order the state to reach decisions on these asylum requests. The second, submitted by attorney Tomer Warsha, calls for granting the Darfuris temporary resident status until their requests are decided upon, as this would make them eligible for health insurance and services.

This would constitute a significant change from their current status, which de facto allows them to work but denies them any other benefits.

According to Warsha, the court orders are “an enormous and rare achievement in our struggle for humaneness for the Darfuri asylum seekers. The High Court was persuaded that our arguments are justified, and that the burden is now on the state to try and prove otherwise. We have said all along that the only incentive that can make the state start working seriously is if continuing the proceedings works to their disadvantage and not to their advantage.”

Warsha added: “If the High Court accepts the petition to give temporary residency to asylum seekers until their requests are decided upon, that’s exactly what will happen and that will be a solution for the refugees from Darfur, who deserve to meanwhile live with dignity like in the world’s other countries.”

The Pomerantzes also welcomed the court's ruling and said they hope that other courts handling the issue “will follow in its footsteps. The Supreme Court has advanced Israel a step further toward wiping out the shame of its ongoing abuse of survivors of genocide.”

During the hearings, it emerged that most of the Interior Ministry’s task force for vetting asylum requests from Darfur had resigned recently. The Population Authority said that three of the five task force members, who had been appointed to formulate criteria for deciding on asylum requests by natives of Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile regions of Sudan, had resigned for personal reasons. The authority said they would be replaced pending relevant training.

During the hearings, Hayut criticized the state for the pace at which it is handling the asylum applications, calling it “unacceptable given the length of time the applications have been pending – which is many years.” Some 3,800 Sudanese have applied for asylum in Israel, but only a single application, filed by community organizer Mutasim Alihas been granted, while the rest have yet to receive a response.

From 2012 to 2017 the state repeatedly claimed in response to various High Court petitions that it was working on the Sudanese applications. At one hearing in 2015, it promised to make a decision by February 2016 on all asylum requests submitted by that hearing, but didn't do so. Moreover, despite a court order, the government never provided a detailed schedule for considering the applications.

Since 2016, some 800 Darfuri asylum seekers have received special humanitarian status that confers the same benefits as asylum, including the right to work, receive welfare and go in and out of the country freely. But in October, Haaretz reported that the state will no longer grant Darfuris this status; instead, it will decide on their asylum applications.

In December, following two High Court petitions on its years-long failure to decide, the governmental immigration agency began re-examining all Sudanese asylum requests. The state said at the time that it had to interview applicants again because initial interviews "weren't sufficiently in-depth" to allow for a decision to be made. This was the first time the state had admitted that it was handling asylum requests inadequately.

For years, the state had argued that the delay in deciding on asylum requests stems from a desire to establish a general policy that would apply across the board. In October, it changed its approach, saying it will instead consider each application individually. But to do so, it added, it must first devise guidelines for how these applications should be judged – which led to the establishment of the task force.