Israel detained a refugee from Darfur “by mistake” for 208 days in 2014, despite his entitlement to legal residency in the country. In an unprecedented ruling last week, a magistrate's court ordered him paid 157,000 shekels ($43,250) in compensation for the ordeal.
Ibrahim, 40, from the Darfur region of Sudan, arrived in Israel in 2007 after fleeing war, and submitted a request for political asylum in Israel. In December 2007, then-Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit instructed that the 600 Sudanese from the Darfur region in Israel, who were recognized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, would receive an A/5 temporary residency permit, and the status and identity card of a temporary resident – which in addition to the right to work also grants social welfare benefits to which citizens are entitled, as well as the freedom of movement to and from Israel.
Ibrahim, who had heard that people from Darfur who entered Israel at the same time as he did received temporary residency status, turned to the Interior Ministry several times, including before being sent to the Holot detention facility in the Negev.
He was turned away, however, and told: “Whoever is supposed to get [residency], will get it.” He turned to the ministry many times, but received no notice of receiving residency status – the only notice he received was in 2014, when he was informed that he would be detained in Holot.
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He spent 208 days there, from February to September 2014. Only after his attorneys, Guy Brand and Noa Diamond, asked the ministry to check whether his name was on the spreadsheet list of refugees the UNHCR sent to the Interior Ministry – did it turn out that he was on the list of those eligible for residency and an ID card, and the Population Authority released him from Holot and informed him of his eligibility.
Ibrahim said that over a year before being sent to Holot he asked the ministry in Eilat about his status, and was told that they contact everyone eligible for an ID card. A few months later they told him the same thing again, but never contacted him. He said he approached a lawyer only during his stay in Holot because he hadn’t known about such an option.
When asked why he didn’t explain his situation during the absorption interview in Holot, he said: “When I arrived they told me you have no status, go to Holot and I went to Holot … I said all those things but nobody listened to me.” Ibrahim said that for 208 days he shared a room with nine others, had to sign in three times a day and to spend the night there.
After his release, his attorneys filed a lawsuit on his behalf against the Population and Immigration Authority, claiming that the Interior Ministry had been negligent in not doing a simple check of Ibrahim’s eligibility for the A/5 visa before sending him to Holot, and thereby had severely and irreversibly violated Ibrahim’s fundamental rights.
Yossi Edelstein, director of the Interior Ministry’s enforcement and foreign workers unit, claimed that the government could not have known that Ibrahim was eligible for an A/5 visa, based on the decision of the Interior Ministry, since at the time the subject was handled by the UNHCR, which sent those eligible for an Israeli ID card to the ministry’s offices.
Edelstein claimed the problem was that the government couldn’t identify the plaintiff as eligible for an A/5 visa because the identification number the refugees received upon arrival in Israel didn’t match the UNHCR numbers. Ibrahim periodically renewed his A/5(2) temporary residency permit – which allows the holder to work but does not provide full social welfare rights, does not entitle the holder to an Israeli ID card and must be renewed regularly – in the Population Registry offices, but Ibrahim never claimed at any stage that he was eligible for an A/5 visa.
Last week the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court rejected the Interior Ministry’s claim that they could not have located Ibrahim’s name on the list, long with claims the statute of limitations had run out. “When the defendant granted refugee status and the right to residency to 600 refugees whose details it received from the UN High Commissioner, it was responsible to check the lists and at least ensure that anyone sent to Holot was not included on them,” wrote Judge Sigal Domniz Someke.
She said that by relying totally on the UNHCR without ensuring that all those eligible had been sent to the Interior Ministry offices, and if not, to check its own lists, the defendant had violated its obligation to act with judiciously concerning the refugees.
The judge said that because the defendant believed it had done its duty by transferring all the responsibility for locating the refugees and sending them to the Interior Ministry to the UNHCR, without keeping track and ensuring that all the eligible refugees received their visas and ID cards, the defendant could have expected that if there were refugees who did not receive their ID cards, some of those who were entitled to refugee status would be sent to Holot and harm would be caused as a result.
The judge emphasized the relevance of the fact that Ibrahim belonged to a “underprivileged group” when she ruled: “We should recall in this connection that we are dealing with 600 refugees who were forced to flee their country and arrived in a foreign country, without knowledge of the language and the country’s administrative and bureaucratic procedures. These refugees are an ‘underprivileged group’ which should be treated with extra cautiousness to prevent undermining their rights.”
But the court rejected the plaintiff’s claims that keeping him in Holot was false incarceration. She also ruled that the plaintiff, whose liberty was denied to him for 208 days, was also at fault for a certain amount of contributory negligence regarding his responsibility for the damage and its continuation. “His obligation, like that of every person, is to insist, despite the restrictions, on the right to liberty that is being denied him, in real time,” wrote the judge.
Brand welcomed the “correct and just” ruling, which rejected the government’s claim that it did not have to and could not find the plaintiff’s name on the UN spreadsheet, before placing him in Holot. Ibrahim is considering an appeal of the ruling because it stated that he was partly to blame for not initiating legal proceedings and reporting to Holot. He is also considering appealing because the judge ordered to deduct from his compensation an amount to cover what the government paid for the “roof over his head” and the “pocket money” provided by the Population Authority.
“I was in jail and I waited patiently for justice to be done,” summed up Ibrahim. “They treated me like a human being only after I was released from prison, without a lawyer I would have remained in prison. It was very hard there. You have to check very carefully before you place someone in detention. Now I’m working in Eilat, I’m happy that I’m not in prison, I’m dreaming of starting a home and getting married and living my life.”