After a hiatus of more than two years, the Interior Ministry has resumed interviewing asylum seekers from Sudan’s Darfur region in an effort to determine their eligibility for refugee status.
In April, the High Court of Justice ordered the state to resume examining 2,445 asylum requests, some of which have been pending for eight years or longer. New Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked says that doing so is part of her policy.
Over the last two weeks, the ministry has summoned dozens of Darfuris for interviews. Some of them told Haaretz that they fear returning home even after the ouster of Sudan’s former dictator, Omar al-Bashir, and the new government’s signing of a normalization agreement with Israel last year.
The court ordered the state to decide by the end of the year on asylum applications filed through 2017 by residents of Darfur and two other Sudanese regions, Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. If decisions haven’t been made by then, it added, all the applicants will be granted temporary residency until their cases are decided.
The asylum seekers have been petitioning for quicker decisions on their applications for the last decade. In 2015, the state promised the court that it would decide on the applications by February 2016, but didn’t do so.
For years, the state claimed that the requests were being considered and attributed the delay to the desire to formulate a comprehensive policy that would apply across the board. Then, in 2018, it changed its position and said that it planned to decide each case individually instead. However, it added, it still needed to formulate general guidelines.
After a military coup ousted Bashir in April 2019, the ministry stopped processing applications of Sudanese altogether. That July, it told the court it did so because of the “uncertainty created by the dynamic situation in Sudan.”
Altogether, it examined 176 applications in 2019 before halting the process. The previous year, it examined 361.
One asylum seeker summoned to an interview in August, who said he was a political activist in Sudan and now lives in Eilat, reported that he was asked why he was still in Israel and whether he shouldn’t go home.
“They told me there’s peace in my country,” he said. “I told them there isn’t peace. They said the Israeli government knows what’s happening there now. I answered that every member of my family is in a refugee camp. I said there are people who returned and I don’t know where they are, and there are people who fled back to Libya. It’s dangerous for me, I can’t go back.”
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Another, who lives in central Israel, applied for asylum in 2015. He said he was asked which Sudanese party he supports and whether he supports Sudan’s current government.
“They asked me how many demonstrations we held here in Israel and if there’s evidence of me at the demonstrations,” he continued. “So I showed them the pictures and livestreams I made.
“In the end, they returned to the question of why I don’t want to return. I explained to them that I can’t return, because the genocide continues and the current government isn’t good. The current prime minister worked with Bashir and is responsible for people’s deaths.
“If they replace the entire government there and I can board a plane to Khartoum and the place I was born without them harming me, I’ll go,” he concluded. “If I go back now, I’ll die or go to jail.”
Two asylum seekers said they were told that the ministry is in contact with several people who returned to Sudan and that they are fine.
Another said the interviewers treated him like a suspect under interrogation. “They asked me to answer questions with ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” he said. “I couldn’t talk freely and I didn’t manage to tell them my problems.”
A person who accompanied him to the interview showed Haaretz a transcript of it. According to the transcript, the interviewer said, “Today, the Sudanese leadership includes everyone, even those who used to be in the opposition. I’ll tell you something else I don’t know if you know – today, your country’s new leadership also has diplomatic relations with Israel.”
Shaked’s office said in a statement that the Refugee Status Determination Committee interviews every applicant personally, and that when she became interior minister in June, she sought to prioritize this issue and make decisions on cases that have been awaiting an answer for a long time.
“The minister attaches supreme importance to dealing with the issue of the infiltrators,” it added. “Therefore, in line with the High Court’s ruling, she is working to carry out thorough, professional, individual examinations of Darfuris’ asylum requests.”
But Nimrod Avigal, who runs the legal aid program at the refugee assistance organization HIAS, claimed that all the interviews being conducted now are intended not to seriously examine the applications, but to create a deceptive picture of the Sudanese who did return home and the impact of the establishment of relations between Jerusalem and Khartoum.
The asylum seekers are living “with no basic rights, in poverty and despair,” he said. “Even today, none of the many people who have already had asylum interviews has gotten a decision on their application.”
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants welcomed the resumption of interviews, adding, “An honest, professional examination of the applications will reveal once and for all what Israel has refrained from saying for years – the asylum seekers from Darfur are refugees.”