Analysis |

With Sudan Normalization, What Would Happen to Darfuri Refugees in Israel?

More vulnerable than ever to the malice of those wishing to deport them, asylum seekers in Israel are anxiously following the raids and ethnic cleansing still taking place in Darfur

Vered Lee
Vered Lee
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A protest by Sudanese asylum seekers in Tel Aviv, 2019
A protest by Sudanese asylum seekers in Tel Aviv, 2019Credit: Tomer Applebaum
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

A blue iron door leads to a long corridor with another blue door at the end. Early one morning I entered a shelter for refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan, situated at the old Tel Aviv bus station. The heat inside was shocking, deadening, suffocating. In that narrow corridor, two Sudanese asylum seekers were sleeping on some musty mattresses. The inner room contained 20 others. It was the sick ones among them whose deep coughing broke the silence. These were men who were shot by Egyptian soldiers along the border, men whose spirit was broken by the massacres that took place in their homeland, who were still in shock after their journey to Israel. I moved further in, entering the “children’s room.” Seven youths aged 14 to 17 had found shelter there. They had arrived from Darfur without their parents. Six of them slept on beds, one on the floor. The room was hot and suffocating. Cockroaches scampered everywhere and an unbearable smell of mold pervaded.

I visited this shelter several times in 2009 while writing a story about those youths, known around the world as the orphans of Darfur. I wrote about Arbab Ali Daoud Ismail Adam for the Haaretz weekend supplement. He was a member of the Daju tribe. In 2003, at the age of 10, he woke up one morning to the sound of screaming and shouting. His village, near the border with Chad, had been invaded by Janjaweed militia – their name means devil on a horse in Arabic. Crying, screaming, smoke, the suffocating air, his childhood village engulfed in flames: These are his memories. His sister yanked him from his bed and they ran the whole night, “like a herd of migrating animals,” he recalled. “Some people had no shoes, but we ran all night. I remember adults who couldn’t take it, falling by the wayside and dying. I remember seeing people bleeding from gunshot wounds, but my strongest memory is of running. Running breathlessly, the whole time wondering where my mother and father were.”

Darfuri women walk through the ruins of Sirba village, ransacked during a government offensive to retake the area from Darfur rebels, near West Darfur's capital el-Geneina, February 21, 2008.Credit: REUTERS/Opheera McDoom

He stayed at a refugee camp in Chad with his sister for three years. There he found out that his parents had been massacred that night. In that camp, he withered away. Since he was very young, his dream was to study. He attempted to reach Europe, escaping to Libya at the age of 13. He was caught, imprisoned and tortured. When he was released, he heard that Israel was a democratic country. He started working 10 hours a day to save money. He wanted to live a more protected life. After a year and a half, he paid some Bedouin smugglers and embarked on a difficult journey ending at the Israeli border. His story is one of many. In 2003 and 2004, close to 200,000 people were murdered in Darfur by the Janjaweed and Sudanese government forces. Two and a half million people abandoned their villages, with hundreds of thousands fleeing westward to Chad. Two hundred fifty minors, the orphans of Darfur, fled to Israel. The number of Sudanese asylum seekers who came to Israel because of the atrocities that took place there currently stands at 6,285.

Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s declaration that Israel and Sudan had agreed to normalize their relations, this community of asylum seekers was stricken with anxiety. Will Israel force their repatriation to Sudan? Sudan’s former president, the tyrant Omar al-Bashir, the man directly responsible for the war crimes in Darfur, was deposed in April 2019, but he was replaced by a military council for a predetermined time. Its leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, was the one who led the murderous ethnic cleansing sweeps in Darfur, with the commander of the Janjaweed, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemetti) serving under him.

Sudanese citizens chant slogans outside the court during the new trial against ousted President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum, Sudan September 1, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

Not only is Sudan’s current leadership tainted by war crimes, but The Guardian noted on Saturday that the earth is shaking in Khartoum, the country’s capital. According to this report, there is currently no functioning parliament in the country, the street opposes the agreement with Israel and the election scheduled for 2022 could completely upend the government structure. It’s unclear whether this agreement can take root in such soil.

The community of asylum seekers in Israel is anxiously following the raids and ethnic cleansing that is still taking place in Darfur. It is now more vulnerable than ever to the malice of those wishing to deport them. Even though the new fence along the border with Egypt prevents other refugees from arriving in Israel – and they avoid coming here anyway – there is always a risk that some political public performance will be translated into political gains at their expense. This has happened throughout the years these refugees have been in Israel with ministers Eli Yishai, Miri Regev, Gideon Sa’ar, Gilad Erdan, Ayelet Shaked, Amir Ohana as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Refugees march to Jerusalem in protest of their worsening conditions, December 2013. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

One can only hope that the normalization of relations with Sudan is not exploited for the sake of an enforced repatriation of people who fled for their lives, seeking refuge in Israel. One can hope that the High Court of Justice will act as a protective barrier for the small community living here. One may hope that if they are exposed to danger, they will be given the opportunity of leaving Israel, under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, for countries that will ensure them a safe haven, countries such as Canada, Switzerland, Germany and others.

Israel, which in the past preceded many countries in signing international treaties on refugees, is failing daily in its treatment of these people. Israel is breaking all records of hypocrisy by welcoming the United Arab Emirates while exhibiting racism toward Arabs living here. It offers a hand of peace to a controversial government in Sudan while at the same time mistreating and abusing Sudanese refugees hoping to find a safe haven here.

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