Israel for the first time awarded refugee status to a Sudanese national on Thursday when it recognized Mutasim Ali, the leader of a protest movement by asylum seekers, as a refugee.
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Interior Minister Arye Dery made the decision at the recommendation of a professional committee.
Ali, originally from Sudan’s Darfur region, began his protest movement about two and a half years ago to demand that Israel give African asylum seekers better treatment. He was subsequently sent to the open detention facility in Holot and held there for 14 months. After a legal battle, a court eventually ordered his release because the state had failed to respond to his asylum request in a timely fashion.
On Thursday, four years after submitting his request, Ali finally received an affirmative response, making him the first Sudanese to win refugee status. Israel has so far not responded to asylum requests by other asylum seekers from Darfur.
Ali, 29, left his native village in 2003 to study geology at a Sudanese university, where he also became politically active on Darfur’s behalf as part of the Sudanese Liberation Movement. In 2005, while he was at university, militiamen supported by the Sudanese government burned his village. His parents fled to a refugee camp in northern Darfur, where they remain to this day.
Ali’s political activity included organizing and attending nonviolent protests; disseminating information about the situation in Sudan, and especially the government’s treatment of Darfur residents; and calling for international intervention on Darfur’s behalf. Because of this activity, the Sudanese government detained him without trial several times, held him in isolation and tortured him.
He eventually fled Sudan, and in May 2009 he arrived in Israel, where he spent his first few months in prison.
“I thank the State of Israel for allowing me to be here for all these years and for accepting my asylum application,” Ali said Thursday. “I promise that Israel won’t regret it. I’ll continue to contribute my bit to Israeli society and the asylum seekers’ community in Israel.
“I intend to use the status I was given to improve the situation in Darfur, so that I can return home safely when the time comes,” he added. “I urge the Israeli government and all countries worldwide to work to end the bloodshed in Darfur and other parts of Sudan. Until then, I’ll continue to work on behalf of the refugee community in Israel.”
Ali’s attorney, Asaf Weitzen, praised the decision. “It’s very exciting that after all the hardships, after such a lengthy period of uncertainty and imprisonment and after endless legal proceedings, Mutasim has received the status he deserves,” Weitzen said.
He added that he hopes this decision is the first sign of a broader change in Israel’s policy.