Seeking Asylum, Sudanese Instead Face Israeli Prison
Israel’s Interior Ministry is preparing prisons in the Negev desert for the mass detention of some 15,000 Sudanese nationals who are seeking asylum as refugees in the Jewish state.
The planned sweep, which the ministry now hopes to launch sometime after October 30, follows hard on the heels of Israel’s deportation in June of hundreds of undocumented migrants from South Sudan, the predominantly Christian country that gained its independence from Sudan in July 2011.
But the challenge of the asylum seekers from Sudan is something entirely different. Not only are the numbers involved vastly larger; Sudan, a predominantly Arab and Muslim country, remains in a state of war with Israel, and the two countries have no diplomatic relations. This makes deporting them back home impossible.
The Sudanese would also face prosecution in Sudan if they were returned there, since the government prohibits its citizens from traveling to Israel.
The Interior Ministry hopes that eventually a third country will be found to take them. Meanwhile, its plans for incarcer- ation are proceeding apace.
Seated in a crowded apartment behind Tel Aviv’s central bus station, Jumaa Ahmad Hamad, one of those the government will target, asked: “Why should I go to prison? I am a refugee, not a criminal.” Hamad, who does not know his exact age because he never got a birth certificate, looks about 30. He is a survivor of the Sudanese government’s campaign against rebellious tribes in Darfur, a campaign whose many reported atrocities led prominent American Jewish leaders, among many others, to denounce Sudan for genocide between 2003 and 2007.
Hamad recalled witnessing his father and uncle being killed during a 2003 attack by militiamen aligned with the Sudanese regime in his farming village of Magarsa. Its 180 thatch houses were torched, and survivors fled to refugee camps in Chad, he said, adding that Magarsa and the surrounding area are still controlled by the pro-government militia,
was behind the establishment of the state.”
Government statistics do not support the view that Israel’s Jewish character is under demographic threat from asylum seekers. The total number of asylum seekers in Israel is estimated at 60,000 in a population of 7,765,700. And in recent months there has been a dramatic drop in the number of asylum seekers entering Israel, a trend attributed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the erection of a fence along the Egyptian border.
The drop-off started in June, when 928 asylum seekers entered compared with 2,031 in May. In July, 280 people entered; in August, 199, and in September, 122.
Despite this, the asylum seekers remain potent political fodder for Yishai and other right-wing politicians whose declarations on the issue reflect and stoke pre-existing animosity against the Africans.
“Most of the people arriving here are Muslims who think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man,” Yishai told the daily newspaper Ma’ariv on June 3 in one such statement. In fact, most of the immigrants from South Sudan and Eritrea are Christians. Yishai’s own family immigrated to Israel from Tunisia in the 1950s.
Many lower-income Israeli residents of the neighborhoods in which the immigrants have settled are especially supportive of Yishai’s initiative. On Salame Street in Tel Aviv, near where Hamad and many other Sudanese live, there was scant sympathy for their situation.
“Children can’t walk around here alone,” said Elvin Khamkayer, 31, who works in a fabric store. “There has been a wave of sexual attacks on young girls, and they bring all kinds of diseases from Africa. I know they also have to live, but if it is either us or them, then I prefer us.’’
Yehuda Bauer, a leading Holocaust scholar and academic adviser to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum, termed the idea of imprisoning the Sudanese to safeguard Israel’s Jewish character “nonsense.” Noting that Israel continues to bring in legal foreign workers from Asia, he said, “We could permit the Eritreans and north Sudanese to work instead of taking more people from Thailand and the Philippines. This would keep them occupied, help the Israeli economy and comply with international law. But the attitude of the ultra-Orthodox is clearly racist. If they were Norwegians, they wouldn’t be put for three years in a detention camp in the desert.”
Orit Marom, a spokeswoman for the group Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum-Seekers, a coplaintiff in the court petition against Yishai’s plan, does not blame Yishai alone for the initiative. The other ministers “are approving this huge outrage with their silence,” she said.
Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, declined to comment on the issue for this article.
Sudanese refugees from Darfur, where the government has been accused of genocide, visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.