Israel does not intend to deport Sudanese asylum seekers after signing its normalization agreement with Khartoum, the head of the Population and Immigration Authority said Tuesday.
Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef thereby contradicted other senior officials who have asserted over the past few months that an agreement would make it easier to deport them.
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Yosef however noted in a briefing for journalists that the state has launched a pilot project to give professional training to Sudanese asylum seekers, and it hopes this will encourage hundreds of them to return voluntarily to their homeland.
He also said that due to dramatic political developments taking place in Sudan, no Sudanese applications for asylum have been reviewed in the past year and a half. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is personally involved in every legal response to court cases on granting legal status to asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, he noted.
“There was some expectation here that if there were an agreement with Sudan, then there would be planes at the airport and they’d all get on and go back to Sudan,” Mor-Yosef said of the asylum seekers. “Well, they won’t go and they won’t be sent.”
Sudan’s situation is “unpredictable, and what looks like quiet now can be loud tomorrow,” he explained. “There’s no plan to return these people against their will; at this stage, that’s not on the table.”
The professional training program, he said, is a joint effort by his agency, the National Security Council, the Justice Ministry and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It is meant to enable Sudanese who want to go home to do so with a profession, likely in the health care sector. But the project is still in its early stages, and no partner for it has yet been found in Sudan.
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According to official Immigration Authority figures, the coronavirus crisis led to a sharp drop in voluntary departures by asylum seekers in 2020. Under the voluntary departure program, the state buys returnees’ plane tickets and gives each of them $3,500.
Last year, just 122 people returned to Sudan, down from 200 in 2019, and 606 to Eritrea, down from 2,172 in 2019. However, there has been a growing interest over the last few weeks, with a few dozen Sudanese asylum seekers applying to return to Sudan, Mor-Yosef said.
Meanwhile, the state has once again postponed submitting its response to the High Court of Justice to a petition demanding that it grant temporary residency to asylum seekers from Sudan’s Darfur region. This would entitle them to various benefits, including health insurance and the right to return to Israel if they leave.
There are currently some 6,000 Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, constituting around a fifth of all asylum seekers. Most fled genocides in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile region, and most countries worldwide grant asylum to Sudanese from these regions.
Around 4,500 Sudanese have filed asylum requests in Israel, but they have been waiting for a response for years, sometimes over a decade. Only one Sudanese national has been granted asylum, the rest are still in limbo. Consequently, most lack any legal status here, and therefore any rights.
In March 2019, the court demanded that the state explain its policy of refusing to either accept or reject Sudanese asylum applications. But since then, the state has repeatedly delayed submitting its response.
In September, the court granted it a three-month postponement due to Israel’s efforts to establish relations with Sudan that “could affect the outcome of the petition.” That period ended on Sunday, but the state has asked for another two weeks.
Mor-Yosef said the delay, like the policy of putting Sudanese applications on hold, was due to the “dramatic changes” in Sudan that ultimately led to a normalization deal.
“Nothing regarding the issue of the Sudanese and Eritreans reaches the High Court without the prime minister being involved,” he added. “I’m involved, the interior minister is involved, the attorney general, the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry as well, but in the end, the prime minister gives the final approval on this issue.”
Israel has long acknowledged that the UN Refugee Convention’s non-refoulement principle precludes deporting Eritrean asylum seekers back home. But with regard to the Sudanese, it has always argued that they couldn’t be deported solely because its lack of diplomatic relations with Sudan made this unfeasible.
Yet the 1951 convention, which Israel signed, states that a person can’t be deported to anyplace where his life or liberty would be endangered, and according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sudan remains an unsafe country despite the recent change in government. Moreover, the convention requires every asylum application to be examined individually even if a country is generally considered safe.