Stranded in limbo

The state is largely not de­tain­ing or de­port­ing African mi­grants at the mo­ment. Rather, it ap­pears to be at­tempt­ing to ig­nore their ex­is­tence and po­ten­tial refugee rights

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By YONAH JEREMY BOB

Dar­furian Su­danese Hashim Beya Dam­bai Ismail has not been sum­moned to any of Is­rael’s de­ten­tion cen­ters; nor has he been pressed to be de­ported to Rwanda or Uganda. Un­like many African mi­grants from Eritrea and other parts of Su­dan, and some younger Dar­furi­ans, he has just been ig­nored by the state.

That means no ben­e­fits, no pen­sion and a very hard time at find­ing a job for this 69-year-old – but also no active punitive mea­sures.

Sit­ting be­fore the Mag­a­zine and an­swer­ing ques­tions about how he feels about the Jewish state, if he thinks he is be­ing treated fairly and whether he wishes he had stayed in Dar­fur, Su­dan, one can see that Ismail is simply lost.

With­out the pres­ence of the skill­ful Ara­bic translator, his sense of be­ing lost could have been at­trib­uted to not un­der­stand­ing the He­brew ques­tions be­ing asked.

But Ismail was very com­fort­able with the translator and with ex­press­ing him­self, in­clud­ing plac­ing his hands on his head in frus­tra­tion. He also kept lifting up doc­u­ments from the state which pre­lim­i­nar­ily rec­og­nized he is from Dar­fur, and be­came very an­i­mated an­swer­ing the Mag­a­zine’s ques­tions in a re­cent interview at the of­fices of the Hotline for Refugees and Mi­grants.

The thing was that even trans­lated into Ara­bic for him, his thoughts simply were not on the level of iden­tity and phi­los­o­phy.

One ques­tion after an­other ended with the same an­swer.

“When will you Is­raelis give me a pen­sion or let me work?” That is all he said he wanted. One or the other. And he did not care much which, though most 69-yearold Is­raelis would prob­a­bly be happy if they could re­tire and live off a pen­sion.

Ismail did not have high am­bi­tions, nor was he de­mand­ing much beyond a roof over his head and a bit of dig­nity to pay min­i­mal ne­ces­si­ties.

He did not even seem in­ter­ested in get­ting bet­ter health­care from the state. This, de­spite that of­fi­cials from the Hotline present for the interview sug­gested that many like him des­per­ately need bet­ter health­care from the state, but are too proud to ad­mit it.

What broader lessons can we learn from Ismail’s story about the African mi­grant is­sue in Is­rael – which after seven years of strug­gle has re­ceded from the head­lines even as over 35,000 mi­grants re­main of the up to 60,000 mi­grants who were here as of 2012?

On one hand, there seems to be very lit­tle to learn from Ismail.

At 69, he is much older than most mi­grants who have suc­ceeded in cross­ing il­le­gally into Is­rael.

Of the around 35,000 mi­grants who have not left or been de­ported since 2012, only a few thou­sand are from Dar­fur, like he is.

So he does not rep­re­sent what most African mi­grants in Is­rael, the Eritre­ans and the non-Dar­furian Su­danese, are go­ing through.

Un­like Ismail, for most of the time since 2012, the state was the­o­ret­i­cally ag­gres­sively pur­su­ing plac­ing Eritre­ans and non-Dar­furian Su­danese in de­ten­tion cen­ters, or at a later date, pur­su­ing de­port­ing them to Rwanda and Eritrea.

THE DE­TEN­TION cen­ters and the de­por­ta­tions were never ac­tu­ally ca­pa­ble of ad­dress­ing the full 60,000 mi­grants, but since no one knew who would be pur­sued, it was a po­ten­tial sce­nario for any­one.

Through these poli­cies, the state in a sense, has had at least half “suc­cess.” Al­most half of the once 60,000 mi­grants have left the coun­try.

Fur­ther­more, no sig­nif­i­cant new num­bers of African mi­grants have made it into the coun­try since the state com­pleted a full-scale wall on its bor­der with Egypt in 2013.

If there might have been a threat of the coun­try be­ing over­whelmed with hun­dreds of thou­sands of African mi­grants, that threat has not been cred­i­ble for some time.

Some will crit­i­cize Is­rael for its past poli­cies, say­ing that Jews of all peo­ple, who have a his­tory of be­ing “strangers in a strange land,” should have reached out to and in­te­grated these mi­grants.

Some will praise the state for the past poli­cies, say­ing they were nec­es­sary to pre­serve the coun­try’s frag­ile Jewish iden­tity in a world where Jews have no other refuge, and mi­grants usu­ally do.

But that de­bate is al­most ob­so­lete at this point. After a series of de­ci­sions and hear­ings by the High Court of Jus­tice, the most re­cent in mid-April 2018, the state can no longer de­tain large num­bers of mi­grants for long pe­ri­ods of time and can no longer de­port them en masse to Rwanda and Uganda.

It also cannot de­port them to Rwanda and Uganda be­cause those states got sick of ac­cept­ing the mi­grants.

At this stage, the only ques­tion would seem to be, is there any other way the state can le­gally con­vince the re­main­ing 35,000 mi­grants to leave, and if not, how best can it in­te­grate them?

This side­steps the ques­tion of whether the re­main­ing mi­grants fit the cri­te­ria for refugee sta­tus un­der the in­ter­na­tional Con­ven­tion Re­lat­ing to the Sta­tus of Refugees of 1951, which Is­rael rat­i­fied in 1954.

And the state, by its ac­tions, or rather non-ac­tions, has seemed to have made it clear that whether mi­grants fit the cri­te­ria for refugee sta­tus is not a high-pri­or­ity ques­tion for it.

Here, Ismail as a Dar­furian, drives this point home that the state does not re­ally care or dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween those who de­serve refugee sta­tus and those who do not.

What is im­por­tant about Ismail and Dar­fur is that there is no cur­rent serious de­bate about whether most Dar­furian Su­danese fit the cri­te­ria for Is­rael to ac­cept them as refugees.

Since 2003, as many as hun­dreds of thou­sands of Dar­furi­ans were killed with mil­lions im­pacted by the oc­ca­sion­ally off, but mostly on, in­ter­nal Su­danese civil war and geno­cide.

WHEN THE Mag­a­zine con­tacted the Pop­u­la­tion Im­mi­gra­tion and Borders Author­ity about the is­sue, there was no at­tempt to deny that some­one fit­ting Ismail’s pro­file tech­ni­cally would be en­ti­tled to refugee sta­tus.

This gen­eral point was ad­mit­ted by PIBA. Rather, there were ex­pla­na­tions about ex­ten­u­at­ing cir­cum­stances for why grant­ing such sta­tus was be­ing in­def­i­nitely de­layed.

Es­sen­tially, the PIBA spokes­woman said that the agency lacked suf­fi­cient re­sources to process all of the re­quests in a timely man­ner.

Hav­ing ar­rived in Is­rael in Septem­ber 2011, Ismail filed his re­quest in March 2017 and has not been called in for an evaluation, let alone got­ten close to a de­ci­sion on his refugee sta­tus.

There is some con­fu­sion sur­round­ing the ques­tion of whether he has been eval­u­ated or in­ter­viewed, as he was given an en­try interview when he first came to Is­rael.

But the bot­tom line is that he and a few thou­sand oth­ers like him are stuck in a hold­ing pat­tern.

PIBA has fast-tracked re­quests of non-Africans from Ukraine and Ge­or­gia at the same time that it is sit­ting on African refugee re­quests.

It explained to the Mag­a­zine that the fast-track­ing is not to give these other groups fa­vor­able treat­ment, but to quickly re­ject them since most of them have no ba­sis for their re­quests and many of them even pro­vide ob­vi­ously false in­for­ma­tion.

So PIBA agrees that Ismail and most Dar­furi­ans like him prob­a­bly de­serves refugee sta­tus, but is find­ing rea­sons to in­def­i­nitely de­lay grant­ing those sta­tuses.

An­other re­sponse by PIBA was that it is not forc­ing Ismail and those like him to stay here – they can leave at any time.

Where the High Court has in­ter­vened de­mand­ing that the state end years of stalling on old ap­pli­ca­tions for refugee sta­tus, the Hotline ex­plains that the state has found a creative so­lu­tion.

Rather than grant­ing refugee sta­tus, which would set a prece­dent and “open the flood­gates” for thou­sands of other refugees to get per­ma­nent recog­ni­tion by the state, it has granted a hu­man­i­tar­ian sta­tus.

The hu­man­i­tar­ian sta­tus, the Hotline for Mi­grants and Refugees ex­plains, is use­ful for the state be­cause it ad­dresses the needs of spe­cific pe­ti­tion­ers (es­ti­mated at around 1,000) and gets the High Court off of its back, but avoids set­ting a prece­dent.

The Hotline ex­plains this is be­cause hu­man­i­tar­ian sta­tus is granted vol­un­tar­ily, out of grace from the state, and not be­cause the state is ob­li­gated.

In­ci­den­tally, it is also much eas­ier for the state to take away a hu­man­i­tar­ian sta­tus at any time as op­posed to refugee sta­tus, which has far more guar­an­teed le­gal pro­tec­tions.

WHAT IS the endgame goal of the state at this point? The Mag­a­zine’s exchange with PIBA was re­veal­ing. Cur­rently, the state’s pol­icy can be summed up by one word: de­nial.

All of the ideas to get the mi­grants to leave: sev­eral ver­sions of de­ten­tion and de­por­ta­tion, in­clud­ing de­por­tees get­ting paid a few thou­sand dol­lars, have “suc­ceeded” some­what, but left the state with 35,000 mi­grants.

Call it a half-vic­tory, half-loss for those who wanted all of the mi­grants to leave. Those who have wanted the state to in­te­grate the mi­grants are ap­palled by the state’s poli­cies for the last seven years, but now have some faint hope that the state will in­te­grate those mi­grants who re­main.

Some of the 35,000 are here be­cause the state knows it cannot de­port them and that they are pretty much en­ti­tled to refugee sta­tus.

Oth­ers might be here merely for eco­nomic rea­sons. The great de­bate about Eritre­ans is whether the coun­try’s forced draft into the army counts as sys­tem­atic per­se­cu­tion (a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of army draftees are tor­tured or killed), and whether flee­ing that draft is an eco­nomic de­ci­sion or a de­ci­sion to flee per­se­cu­tion.

Non-Dar­furian Su­danese cannot be sent back to Su­dan, be­cause Is­rael has no diplo­matic re­la­tions with Su­dan re­gard­less of whether they left for eco­nomic or per­se­cu­tion rea­sons.

The­o­ret­i­cally, the state might be able to send those who came for eco­nomic rea­sons else­where, but the some­where else still must meet cer­tain min­i­mal stan­dards of safety and that some­where must be willing to take them.

So the state knows it cannot com­pel most of the re­main­ing 35,000 mi­grants to leave en masse, but it also does not want to an­nounce they can stay.

If you cannot get some­one to leave, but don’t want them to stay – and you are a politi­cian – de­nial is not a bad op­tion.

There was one brief mo­ment where the state al­most agreed to let 20,000 mi­grants stay, which shows how pre­car­i­ous the idea of let­ting mi­grants stay still is po­lit­i­cally in Is­rael.

In early April 2018, Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu made a sud­den and dra­matic an­nounce­ment that after 12 years of de­bate, an an­swer had been found to the mi­grants’ dilemma.

Ne­tanyahu said in a tele­vised speech to the na­tion that of Is­rael’s 35,000 plus mi­grants, around 16,000 would be sent to Western coun­tries in an or­derly man­ner over five years, while all or most of the other around 20,000 would get to stay.

The 16,000 num­ber al­ways raised ques­tions. But the an­nounce­ment that around 20,000 mi­grants would fi­nally be dis­trib­uted into dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try and in­te­grated into so­ci­ety seemed like a ma­jor turn­ing point.

It seemed to end the 12-year fight be­tween the gov­ern­ment, the mi­grants, the courts, the UN and hu­man rights groups.

At least for a few hours.

Then Bayit Ye­hudi leader Naf­tali Bennett at­tacked Ne­tanyahu for be­ing weak on the mi­grants is­sue. In­te­rior Min­is­ter Arye Deri let it be known that he had not been consulted or ap­proved the pol­icy. As sud­denly as he an­nounced the deal, Ne­tanyahu dropped it.

It seems that do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal at­tacks were not the only cause.

Some Western coun­tries who the UN and hu­man rights groups had promised would re­ceive some of the 16,000 mi­grants came out pub­licly against ac­cept­ing them.

After years of crit­i­ciz­ing Is­rael, when the gov­ern­ment fi­nally seemed ready to take a “fair share” of mi­grants if oth­ers as­sisted, it seemed there was no short­age of hypocrisy.

This fed Is­raeli of­fi­cials who all along had said that many coun­tries in the world were no more willing than Is­rael to take African mi­grants per­ma­nently.

It is also not as if this is an is­sue where Is­rael’s po­lit­i­cal Left is press­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion for mi­grant rights.

Cen­trist and left­ist politi­cians like Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and Avi Gab­bay have voted for or de­clined to op­pose Knes­set laws put for­ward by the Ne­tanyahu gov­ern­ments de­signed to pres­sure mi­grants to leave.

To date, Benny Gantz has not com­mented on the is­sue and it does not ap­pear that the Blue and White Party has con­sid­ered it im­por­tant enough to come up with a po­si­tion.

Meretz may be the only party which con­sis­tently op­poses such laws.

So de­nial is ac­tu­ally a pretty re­al­is­tic pol­icy. This is es­pe­cially true as long as the mi­grants keep to the sidelines and do not make too many waves in the news.

ALL OF this brings us back full cir­cle to Ismail.

If the state was slowly ap­prov­ing a small num­ber of refugee re­quests only for Dar­furian Su­danese like Ismail – and as a 69-year-old, he is a classic case where the state could take pity – then it could claim it was just mov­ing slowly and that its en­tire pol­icy was not de­nial.

If the state was re­ject­ing Eritrean and non-Dar­furian Su­danese refugee re­quests, there could be a spir­ited de­bate about whether the UN, Eng­land or other fact-find­ing mis­sions best sum­ma­rize the sit­u­a­tion in Eritrea and Su­dan re­gard­ing whether there is sys­tem­atic per­se­cu­tion or whether the coun­tries are just dirt poor like much of the planet.

But zero refugee Dar­furian re­quests are get­ting ap­proved, ac­cord­ing to PIBA. The PIBA spokes­woman said that Ismail will not get any spe­cial at­ten­tion at this point, be­cause no one is even open­ing his file long enough to no­tice that he is ap­proach­ing his eighth decade.

The rea­son for this is phrased in terms of scarce re­sources.

Yet any­one who has fol­lowed the is­sue long enough knows that re­sources are just a ques­tion of pri­or­i­ties, and that PIBA has been re­peat­ing for years that it was soon go­ing to do bet­ter once it got more re­sources.

For ex­am­ple, when sim­i­lar is­sues arose in April 2017, PIBA told the Mag­a­zine that at an un­de­fined time in the fu­ture, it will ex­pand to a larger of­fice space to take in more re­quests.

Pressed at the time about why it had not opened In­ter­net regis­tra­tion as a so­lu­tion, a PIBA spokes­woman re­sponded, “We are do­ing the best we can to han­dle the is­sue... Pro­vid­ing a ‘band-aid’ so­lu­tion to the prob­lem will not solve it… the sit­u­a­tion does not re­volve around regis­tra­tion, but around ca­pac­ity to re­ceive re­quests and other is­sues.”

Pushed fur­ther at the time about what would be a rea­son­able time-frame, the PIBA spokes­woman re­fused to “toss out fake times… we are work­ing on it as much as pos­si­ble.”

Noth­ing has changed since April 2017.

So it is not re­sources re­ally, but de­nial.

And this is why Ismail may be more co­her­ent and in­ci­sive than he seemed to the Mag­a­zine at first.

Ques­tions from the Mag­a­zine about how he feels about the state, whether he wishes he came here – these are in­ter­est­ing ques­tions at the point where the state is de­bat­ing what to do with him.

But there is no de­bate right now.

Any­one in gov­ern­ment work­ing on the is­sue knows the dirty se­cret that at least some mi­grants, like Ismail, could have had refugee sta­tus years ago. This is true even if those op­pos­ing the mi­grants might have solid ar­gu­ments for de­bat­ing the sta­tus of Eritrean and Su­danese refugees.

Ismail knows this and re­al­izes he is be­ing ig­nored. He ac­cepts it on ques­tions of iden­tity.

In this case, all that mat­ters in the now is whether some­one will give him a job or a pen­sion.

If he is go­ing to be de­nied and ig­nored, he just wants to know how he can eke out his ex­is­tence in the mean­time.

The bot­tom line is that Ismail and a few thou­sand oth­ers like him are stuck in a hold­ing pat­tern

(Marc Is­rael Sellem)

AFRICAN MI­GRANTS are seen in South Tel Aviv last July.


WORK­ING WITH mi­grants at the Tel Aviv of­fices of the Hotline for Refugees and Mi­grants.

(Baz Ratner/Reuters)

SU­DANESE MI­GRANT worker Yous­suf, who crossed the bor­der from Egypt to Is­rael il­le­gally some two months prior, works on the con­struc­tion of a fence on the bor­der be­tween Is­rael and Egypt along Is­rael’s High­way 12, a desert road north of Ei­lat, on Fe­bru­ary 15, 2012.

(Marc Is­rael Sellem)

‘IT’S TIME to take in [refugees]!’ a ban­ner reads at a rally held on Jerusalem’s King George Av­enue on April 4, 2018.

(Amir Co­hen/Reuters)

POST RE­LEASE, African mi­grants walk out of Sa­ha­ronim Prison in the Negev on April 15, 2018.

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