The Kafkaesque World of Sudanese Refugees in Israel
Aid organizations fear that Israel is about to deport thousands of asylum-seekers to Sudan now that the two countries have made peace.
On Oct. 23, U.S. President Donald Trump announced from his office in the White House a normalization agreement between Israel and Sudan. It came five weeks after similar agreements were announced between Israel and two other Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Tweeting about the agreement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrated the reversal from the 1967 Arab League summit in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, where Arab leaders declared their infamous Three Noes: no to peace with Israel, no to recognition of Israel, and no to negotiations with Israel. “And today Khartoum says – yes to peace with Israel, yes to recognition of Israel and yes to normalization with Israel,” Netanyahu wrote, adding, “Delegations from Israel and Sudan will meet soon to discuss cooperation in many areas, including agriculture, trade and other areas important to our citizens.”
Critics point to the timing of the announcement around Trump’s reelection campaign and Sudan’s removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism as an apparent condition to make it happen. But largely absent from the public discussion of the normalization thus far is the future of around 6,200 Sudanese asylum-seekers in Israel who are worried that Israeli authorities will now aggressively try to deport them, as they did with South Sudanese refugees following South Sudan’s independence in 2011. Many Sudanese in Israel are convinced that they have become a scapegoat in domestic Israeli politics, as Netanyahu—who also faces a likely election while embroiled in multiple political scandals—has repeatedly promised his right-wing political base over the years to expel them.
“There is peace in Sudan now, so you can go back to your country,” Member of Parliament May Golan, of Netanyahu’s Likud party, told a Sudanese asylum-seeker in an exchange recorded on video that went viral in Israel. She also tweeted: “Nothing will deter me in the struggle to establish an immigration policy and to expel all infiltrators from Israel and return them to their countries of origin!”
But for Sudanese asylum-seekers in Israel today, there are still concerns about returning to their home country. Despite the fall of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s authoritarian government in 2019 following a popular uprising, a peace agreement between the transitional government and some rebel groups, and steps toward the normalization of relations between Israel and Sudan, violence hasn’t ceased in some areas in Sudan. Dozens of people have been killed.
“Our areas are still not safe,” said Adam Ahmed Yahya, an asylum-seeker from the war-torn region of Darfur living in Tel Aviv. “Our families are still in refugee camps.” Yahya is particularly worried that Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Sudanese transition government, and his deputy, Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, are both military officers alleged to be responsible for war crimes in Darfur. “We know what happened in Darfur,” Yahya said. “We know who they are.”
The ironies of Israel—which sees itself as a “light unto the nations”—both attracting and rejecting Sudanese refugees are hard to miss. For decades, both Sudan and Israel officially categorized each other as enemy states. Africa and the Arab world’s largest country by area before the secession of South Sudan in 2011, Sudan has struggled to find peace since its independence in 1956. A multiethnic state dominated by politicians from its north and center, it has alternated several times between civilian and military rule. Wars have erupted in the country’s peripheral regions, which complain of political, economic, and cultural marginalization. A rebellion broke out in the country’s southern region for the second time in 1983 and intensified after Sudan’s Islamists gained power in 1989 in a military coup led by Bashir and supported by the late Hassan al-Turabi, a hard-line ideologue. The spread of discontent and conflict to other parts of the country, along with aggressive Arabization and Islamization policies against Sudan’s ethnic and religious minorities, pushed tens of thousands of people to seek refuge abroad. Human rights groups accused Bashir’s government of abuses including slavery, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, especially in the regions of southern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, and Darfur.
Many Sudanese fled to neighboring countries, including Egypt, where they had hopes of being relocated to Europe, North America, or Australia. In 2005, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cairo, however, stopped accepting Sudanese refugee applications following a peace agreement between the Khartoum government and southern rebels, even though Sudan was still a dictatorship and wars continued in other regions. Frustrated Sudanese refugee activists started a sit-in across from UNHCR offices in Cairo in September 2005. Three months later, Egyptian police broke up the sit-in violently, killing dozens. Losing hope that they would make it to their original destination, some Sudanese, followed later by other Africans, started to make the trek through the Sinai Desert to Israel.
In the beginning, many Israeli officials and ordinary citizens showed a degree of empathy—even though the refugees came from an enemy state. As their numbers increased in the following years, however, many Israelis—especially those on the political far-right—began to object to their presence. With many Sudanese living in south Tel Aviv’s working-class neighborhoods, the new arrivals were depicted as criminals allegedly spreading diseases and a demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish majority. Member of Parliament Miri Regev described Sudanese refugees as a “cancer.” Critics called the reaction anti-black racism.
The Sudanese refugees’ stay in Israel became a contentious political and legal topic that has, for several years now, divided public opinion and ignited court battles, racist rhetoric, and solidarity protests. While human rights groups consider most Sudanese asylum-seekers to have legitimate cases, politicians in Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition have refused to view them as refugees, considering them economic migrants fleeing poverty—and refer to them as “infiltrators,” a term once used to describe Palestinian militants. (The United Nations defines legitimate refugees as those “who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection.”) Until the recent normalization agreement between the two countries, refugees deported back to Sudan could have faced imprisonment, torture, or even death for illegally traveling to an enemy state. For years, they have been condoned in Israel under a vague policy of “temporary protection” or “delay of deportation,” which has kept the Israeli government in compliance with international law prohibiting the deportation of refugees. But it has left Sudanese in Israel in limbo.
According to the Israeli group Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Israel has only approved asylum for 200 non-Jewish refugees since signing the U.N. Refugee Convention almost 60 years ago—a rate lower than 1 percent of asylum applications compared to between 10 and 50 percent in many developed countries.
To keep more Africans from crossing the border, Israel erected a security fence along its southern border in 2013, and it opened the Holot detention center near the Egyptian border for those who did manage to cross. In early 2018, Israel planned to forcefully deport the detainees to Uganda and Rwanda or to move them to Israeli prisons, but that sparked an international outcry. The government then announced it had reached an agreement with the United Nations to resettle them as recognized refugees in Israel and Europe, only to back away from that plan the next day after an outcry in Israel.
“Successive Israeli governments sought to mobilize popular support, first, through scaremongering about the dangers this population represents to the Jewish identity of the Israeli state, its economy and security, and second, through the introduction of often illegal measures that sought to remove this population from Israel,” said Yotam Gidron, a researcher at Durham University in the United Kingdom.
Today, according to refugee rights activists, most Sudanese asylum-seekers in Israel live in the country without any official residency status, or other rights—15 years after the first Sudanese arrived. The Israeli government has denied most of them the ability to apply for asylum and has prevented them from access to adequate health care, welfare payments, and other social services—a situation made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, as many lost whatever work they might have had because of lockdown restrictions and the economic downturn.
In those cases where Sudanese have been able to apply for asylum, activists say that Israeli immigration authorities discriminate depending on ethnic background, sometimes offering some rights such as work permits and access to health care and social services to a limited number of non-Arab applicants from Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile state—while rejecting the applications of Arab Sudanese. By the end of last year, only one Sudanese asylum-seeker had been offered full refugee rights. At the peak in 2012, there were 15,000 Sudanese in Israel, but thousands have been coerced to return.
Sigal Rozen, a public policy coordinator at Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, says that limited successes for some refugees doesn’t mean that Netanyahu’s government has a heart for them. “There is heavy pressure from Jewish groups in the U.S.,” regarding Darfuris, she said, because they are fleeing the site of a genocide and because U.S. Jewish groups such as the American Jewish World Service were instrumental in bringing attention to the atrocities in Darfur.
In September, the Israeli Supreme Court gave government officials until January to clarify their position on Sudanese asylum applications that have been pending for years. “The status of the Sudanese asylum-seekers’ applications at the moment is that the Israeli Ministry of Interior isn’t processing them,” said Michal Pomerantz, a civil rights attorney who represents asylum-seekers. “They have frozen the examination of the application because of the political change in Sudan; they claim they can’t process them due to the uncertainty of the situation.”
A group of Israeli refugee assistance organizations helping the Sudanese argued in an October report that “Israel must examine asylum applications under the Refugee Convention and grant status to those who are entitled to it, regardless of the diplomatic relations with the country from which they fled.”
Many Sudanese asylum-seekers say they would leave if circumstances in Sudan allowed. “The moment Sudan is safe for us, Israel won’t have to deport anyone—we’ll return home on our own,” said Usumain Baraka, a refugee from Darfur and the CEO of the African Students Organization in Israel.
“Most Sudanese here in Israel are very updated on what’s going on in Sudan, through our friends in refugee and [internally displaced persons] camps,” he said. “The situation there is incredibly dangerous, and we know better than to return to a home that isn’t safe for us.”
In the meantime, how Israeli authorities will handle their cases remains to be seen. “Israel has had years to demonstrate that it regards the Sudanese people and cares for their future and well-being by treating refugees with dignity and with logic as human beings in a unique situation that grants them protection and rights,” said Inbal Ben Yehuda, a researcher at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think tank. “But it failed the test and failed the refugee community over and over again.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Israel’s Sudanese refugees have learned to worry when they hear the words “peace agreement.”
Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.