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The Kafkaesque world of the Sudanese refugees in Israel

On October 23, US President Donald Trump announced a normalization agreement between Israel and Sudan from his office in the White House. It took five weeks to announce similar agreements between Israel and two other Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted about the agreement and celebrated the reversal of the 1967 Arab League summit in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, where Arab leaders declared their infamous three no: no to peace with Israel, no to recognition of Israel and no to negotiations Israel. "And today Khartoum says – yes to peace with Israel, yes to recognition of Israel and yes to normalization with Israel," wrote Netanyahu, adding: "Delegations from Israel and Sudan will soon meet to promote cooperation in many areas, including Agriculture and trade, to be discussed and other areas that are important to our citizens. "

Critics point to the timing of the announcement of Trump's re-election campaign and the removal of Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism as an obvious prerequisite for this. In the public discussion about normalization so far, however, the future of around 6,200 Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel is largely missing, who fear that the Israeli authorities will now aggressively attempt to deport them, as is the case with South Sudanese refugees in Israel after the independence of South Sudan The case was 2011. Many Sudanese in Israel believe they have become a scapegoat in Israeli domestic politics, given that Netanyahu – who is also facing an election while embroiled in several political scandals – has become his right-wing political base over the years has repeatedly promised to expel them.

"Sudan is now at peace so you can return to your country," Netanyahu's Likud Party's MP May Golan told a Sudanese asylum seeker in an exchange that was taped on a video that went viral in Israel. She also tweeted: "Nothing will stop me from establishing an immigration policy and driving all infiltrators out of Israel and bringing them back to their countries of origin!"

But today there are still concerns for Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel about returning to their homeland. Despite the overthrow of the authoritarian government of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2019 following a popular uprising, a peace deal between the transitional government and some rebel groups, and steps to normalize relations between Israel and Sudan, the violence has not stopped some areas in Sudan. Dozens of people were killed.

"Our areas are still not safe," said Adam Ahmed Yahya, an asylum seeker from the war-torn Darfur region who lives in Tel Aviv. "Our families are still in refugee camps." Yahya is particularly concerned that Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese interim government, and his deputy Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, are both military officers allegedly responsible for war crimes in Darfur. "We know what happened in Darfur," said Yahya. "We know who you are."

The irony of Israel, which sees itself as "light for the nations", both to attract and to reject Sudanese refugees, can hardly be overlooked. For decades, both Sudan and Israel have officially classified themselves as hostile states. Africa and the largest country in terms of area in the Arab world before the secession of South Sudan in 2011, Sudan has had problems finding peace since its independence in 1956. As a multi-ethnic state dominated by politicians from the north and the center, it has switched between civilians and civilian military rule several times. Wars have broken out in the country's peripheral regions, complaining of political, economic and cultural marginalization. A second uprising broke out in the country's southern region in 1983, and deepened after the Sudanese Islamists came to power in 1989 through a military coup led by Bashir and supported by the late Hassan al-Turabi, a hard-line ideologist. The spread of dissatisfaction and conflicts in other parts of the country as well as the aggressive policies of Arabization and Islamization against the ethnic and religious minorities in Sudan caused tens of thousands of people to seek refuge abroad. Human rights groups accused the Bashir government of ill-treatment, including slavery, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide, particularly in the regions of South Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, the Blue Nile and Darfur.

Many Sudanese fled to neighboring countries, including Egypt, where they hoped to be relocated to Europe, North America or Australia. In 2005, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cairo refused to accept Sudanese refugee applications following a peace agreement between the Khartoum government and southern rebels, although Sudan was still a dictatorship and the wars in other regions continued . Frustrated Sudanese refugee activists began a sit-in opposite the UNHCR offices in Cairo in September 2005. Three months later, the Egyptian police violently broke up the sit-in, killing dozen. Some Sudanese, later followed by other Africans, lost hope that they would make it to their original destination and made their way across the Sinai Desert to Israel.

In the beginning, many Israeli officials and ordinary citizens showed a degree of empathy – even though the refugees were from a hostile state. However, as their numbers increased in the years that followed, many Israelis – especially the far right – began to object to their presence. With many Sudanese people living in the working-class neighborhoods south of Tel Aviv, the newcomers have been portrayed as criminals who are believed to spread disease and pose a demographic threat to the Jewish majority of Israel. MEP Miri Regev called Sudanese refugees "cancer". Critics called the reaction anti-black racism.

The stay of the Sudanese refugees in Israel has become a controversial political and legal issue that has divided public opinion for several years and sparked court battles, racist rhetoric and solidarity protests. While human rights groups view most Sudanese asylum seekers as legitimate cases, politicians in the right-wing Netanyahu coalition have refused to view them as refugees, viewing them as economic migrants fleeing poverty – calling them "infiltrators," a term who was once used to describe Palestinian militants. Until the recent normalization agreement between the two countries, refugees deported back to Sudan may have been detained, tortured or even killed for illegally traveling to a hostile state. For years, they have been tolerated in Israel under a vague policy of "temporary protection" or "delaying deportation", which the Israeli government maintains in accordance with international law that prohibits the deportation of refugees. But it left Sudanese in Israel in the balance.

According to the Israeli group Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, since the UN Convention on Refugees was signed almost 60 years ago, Israel has only approved asylum for 200 non-Jewish refugees – a quota of less than 1 percent of asylum applications compared to 10 to 50 percent in many industrialized countries.

To keep more Africans from crossing the border, Israel erected a security fence along the southern border in 2013 and opened the Holot detention center near the Egyptian border for those who managed to cross the border. In early 2018, Israel planned to forcibly deport the prisoners to Uganda and Rwanda, or to take them to Israeli prisons, but this sparked international outcry. The government then announced that it had reached an agreement with the United Nations to relocate them as recognized refugees in Israel and Europe, only to withdraw from the plan the next day after an outcry in Israel.

Successive Israeli governments have attempted to mobilize popular support, firstly by fear of the dangers that this population poses to the Jewish identity of the Israeli state, its economy and security, and secondly by often introducing illegal measures to eliminate this population from Israel, "said Yotam Gidron, a researcher at Durham University in the UK.

According to refugee rights activists, most Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel now live in the country without official residence status or other rights – 15 years after the first Sudanese arrived. The Israeli government has denied most of them the opportunity to seek asylum and denied them access to adequate health, welfare and other social services – a situation made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic as many of them did their jobs May have lost due to lockdown restrictions and the economic downturn.

In the cases where Sudanese have been able to apply for asylum, activists say Israeli immigration authorities discriminate based on ethnic background and sometimes offer rights such as work permits and access to health and social services to a limited number of non-Arab applicants from Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and the world Blue Nile State – while Arab Sudanese applications are denied. Until the end of last year, only one Sudanese asylum seeker had been offered full refugee rights. At its peak in 2012, Israel had 15,000 Sudanese people, but thousands were forced to return.

Sigal Rozen, public order coordinator for the refugee and migrant helpline, says that limited success for some refugees doesn't mean the Netanyahu government has a heart for them. "There is a lot of pressure from Jewish groups in the US," she said, referring to Darfuris because they are fleeing genocide and because Jewish groups in the US like the American Jewish World Service have been instrumental in bringing attention to the atrocities in To direct Darfur.

In September, the Israeli Supreme Court gave government officials until January to clarify their position on Sudanese asylum applications that had been pending for years. "The status of applications from Sudanese asylum seekers is currently that the Israeli Ministry of the Interior is not processing them," said Michal Pomerantz, a civil rights attorney who represents asylum seekers. “You have frozen the examination of the application because of the political change in Sudan. They claim that because of the uncertainty of the situation, they cannot process it. "

A group of Israeli refugee aid organizations that help the Sudanese argued in an October report: “Israel must review asylum applications in accordance with the Refugee Convention and grant those eligible regardless of diplomatic relations with the country they have fled from. ”

Many Sudanese asylum seekers say they will leave if circumstances in Sudan allow. "The moment Sudan is safe for us, Israel does not have to deport anyone – we will return home alone," said Usumain Baraka, a refugee from Darfur and CEO of the African Students Organization in Israel.

"Most of the Sudanese here in Israel are very aware of what is going on in Sudan through our friends in refugee and (internally displaced) camps," he said. "The situation there is incredibly dangerous and we know better than to return to a house that is not safe for us."

In the meantime, it remains to be seen how the Israeli authorities will handle their cases. "Israel has had years to demonstrate that it looks at the Sudanese people and cares about their future and well-being by treating refugees with dignity and logic as people in a unique situation that affords them protection and rights," said Inbal Ben Yehuda. a researcher at the Forum for Regional Thought, an Israeli think tank. "But it didn't pass the test, and the refugee community kept failing."

No wonder, then, that Israel's Sudanese refugees have learned to worry when they hear the words "peace deal".

Coverage for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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