Warming Israeli-Sudanese Relations Worry Asylum Seekers Waiting for Refugee Status

Netanyahu's comments have shaken up community of 6,000 Sudanese in Israel, fearing their lives could be upended

A protest of Sudanese asylum seekers in Tel Aviv, April 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

On Monday night, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Sudanese leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Uganda, Faisal Sadiq Adam sat in his Petah Tikva home watching the celebratory reports on television news. He heard the prime minister’s emotional words, “I met in Entebbe with the chairman of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and we agreed to begin cooperation that will lead to normalizing the relations between the two countries. History!” And he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“I’m living in Israel 12 years now, I work as a car mechanic and try to earn a decent living and live my life without bothering anyone,” he said. “During all my years here Netanyahu and his ministers curse us, incite against us, act toward us as if we aren’t human beings, yell at me in the street that I’m a cockroach, that I’m black and disgusting, but suddenly one can talk with a Sudanese man? You mean all Sudanese aren’t cancer? You can negotiate with them?” He said that the Sudanese community is now feeling worried and scared.

“We are living here without residential status, which means they can undermine in one blow all our security in life and everything we’re trying to build,” said Adam, another asylum seeker from Sudan, who has three children and has been living in south Tel Aviv since 2012. “Think of yourselves, you live in a certain city, your kids are in school, you have work, but you always have the fear that one day some politician will want to get more votes at your expense and will send you and your children to a dangerous country, and everything you try to build will be destroyed.”

A protest of Sudanese asylum seekers in Tel Aviv April 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Sudanese nationals are not currently being repatriated to their native land, but not because Israel recognizes Sudan as a country in crisis. A few years ago the Population Authority cited “the practical difficulties of carrying out such returns because of the lack of diplomatic relations between the State of Israel and the Republic of Sudan, as well as the lack of communication with the authorities in that country” in its response to an appeal filed by a Sudanese asylum seeker over the decision not to include him in the group of asylum seekers from that country that were given a status similar to that of refugees.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel stressed to Haaretz on Monday that even if there’s a change in the relations between the countries, it would not allow for forced deportations to Sudan, but only for voluntary return. Even so, the prime minister’s comments have shaken up the entire community, according to Faisal, who submitted his request to receive refugee status in 2013 and has yet to get a response.

“I have a lot of family in Darfur [a part of Sudan], and people are being killed and wounded,” Faisal said. “The situation there changes all the time; you can’t say it’s not dangerous there, there’s still murder every day. My grandfather and five uncles were killed; my mother told me when I was 16 to flee so at least I’d be saved. Israelis don’t listen to our stories, but we were fleeing from real danger.”

Just last week, the UNHCR said that clashes in Darfur had forced more than 11,000 people to flee to neighboring Chad since last month, 4,000 of them in the previous week alone. An estimated 46,000 people have been displaced within the country.

There are around 6,500 Sudanese nationals in Israel, representing 20 percent of all the asylum seekers in the country. Of these, 4,500 have submitted requests for political asylum and have been awaiting a decision for many years. Some 1,600 of the Sudanese have been recognized as coming from Darfur, and another 300 as originating from the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions, also known regions of conflict. There are many others who originate from these areas but they aren’t recognized as such because they have never been called in for interviews to determine their place of original residence.

The only asylum request approved for a Sudanese national was that of Mutasim Ali in 2016. Since 2016, some 800 Sudanese have been granted a status similar to that of refugee, which allows them to work, get social benefits and travel to and from Israel. More than a thousand Sudanese have never asked for asylum.

Netanyahu and his wife Sara with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Uganda's First Lady Janet Museveni at the State House in Entebbe, Uganda, February 3, 2020
STRINGER/Reuters

Ali heard the prime minister’s declarations Monday in the library of George Washington University, where he is doing a master’s degree.

“I was disappointed, because instead of supporting a civilian government in Sudan, Netanyahu is giving legitimacy to military men who murdered many Sudanese citizens,” he said. “I don’t believe that Israel will round up people and forcibly expel them, but these declarations create enormous pressure and lead people to ‘leave willingly.’ My primary concern is that unfortunately, we as a community are always on the defensive. The best that we can hope for from Israel is the status quo, that they won’t examine [the asylum requests] but won’t deport [us].”

The state comptroller, the United Nations and the Supreme Court have frequently criticized Israel’s policy of allowing people to file asylum requests but not examining them. Over the past decade, the state has given a series of reasons for doing so, which change every couple of years and often contradict each other. Population Authority sources themselves admit these explanations aren’t serious, but rather excuses to avoid approving the requests.

The Supreme Court has been conducting hearings on these issues since 2017. The state said last July in response to one of the petitions that the political situation in the country wasn’t clear because of the coup in Sudan, and as a result it would not be examining asylum requests until further notice. The state’s next response is expected this July, presumably after the formation of a new government. Along with petitions to the Supreme Court, there are still numerous cases pending in district courts dealing with the non-recognition of Darfurians as refugees. In dozens of cases, appeals tribunals have granted the appeals of Darfurian asylum seekers and granted them temporary residency status until a decision is made on their asylum requests.

Children of asylum seekers and migrants march in south Tel Aviv's Purim parade, March 19, 2019.
Moti Milrod

Munim Aaron, a Sudanese asylum seeker and third-year student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is one of them. He was granted temporary residency in December 2017. He believes that normalizing relations between Israel and Sudan, if it happens, could have positive aspects.

“When I was a boy in school in Darfur they taught us a lot of anti-Semitic things, that Jews are evil murderers who only like money,” he said. “Israelis don’t know this, but in Sudan they consider Israel an enemy and educate children against Israelis from a young age. If there would be relations between the countries, from that perspective it would be a historic and important move diplomatically; both countries would benefit.”

He did acknowledge that “the immediate political ramifications are very dangerous for us, if they try to deport us back.” He added: “I came from Darfur alone; my family stayed there. Some of them live in displaced persons camps and say the situation is awful. I’m afraid that Israel will sell Sudan weapons that will hurt our families there.”

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, meanwhile, has petitioned the Jerusalem District Court asking it to force the state to conduct interviews with asylum seekers from Sudan to determine their places of origin. There was a hearing in the case Monday, but no ruling has yet been issued.

The organization on Tuesday was trying calm the Sudanese community down. “Given the fact that most Sudanese have open asylum requests that even the state says haven’t even begun to be examined, and given the state’s commitment in the past not of deport asylum seekers whose asylum requests were not examined, our assessment right now is that there is no risk of immediate attempts to expel asylum seekers from Sudan.”