Seek­ing Asy­lum, Su­danese In­stead Face Is­raeli Prison

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Ben Lyn­field

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.

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