State stalling on interviewing Darfurians to grant refugee status - exclusive

69-year-old migrant: 'Why at this age do I still need to ask for an identity card?'

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June 19, 2019 04:01
African asylum seekers gather in the shade of trees during a protest in southern Israel's Negev

African asylum seekers gather in the shade of trees during a protest in southern Israel's Negev desert. (photo credit: FINBARR O'REILLY / REUTERS)

 
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The state is refusing to interview any Sudanese from Darfur who might be eligible as refugees, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, which follows the issue both on the legal and social playing fields, says that no Sudanese Darfurians have been granted refugee status since March 2018 when the Holot detention center was closed.

The Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) confirmed the allegation, though it gives a different narrative than the Hotline does to explain the reason.

But the ‘why’ of the inaction doesn’t matter to Hashim Beya Dambai Ismail. The 69-year-old Ismail is one of many Sudanese Darfurians who have been in Israel for close to a decade without their status having been determined.

Though he arrived in September 2011, Ismail only filed his request to be recognized as a refugee in March 2017. Since then, not only has he not received any decision, but has not even been called in for an interview.

“Why at this age do I still need to ask for an identity card? I should have it already,” he told the Post recently in his native Arabic (which was translated to Hebrew) at the office of the Hotline, which leads much of the legal struggle on behalf of migrants’ rights. “I can work. Or if you don’t want me to work, give me a pension,” he said, with a bewildered look in his eyes.

He and people like him bounce around between temporary jobs, like washing dishes in restaurant kitchens, since employers offering better paying jobs often won’t risk hiring someone without an identity card. Furthermore, at his advanced age he has it even rougher, since he is no longer able to perform many of the physical labor jobs that some migrants are able to snag.

Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that Ismail has no family in Israel to look after him, since his wife died in Darfur and his kids remain there after he escaped during the height of the chaos. Like many other Darfurians, the state never tried to send or deport him to Rwanda or Uganda as it has tried with most migrants, knowing that this could be legally problematic since Darfurians have a strong argument for refugee status in light of the ongoing wars and persecution in the area.

SENDING non-Darfurian Sudanese and Eritreans to Rwanda or Uganda – or locally to Holot and other detention centers – are several ways that the state has, over time, cut the African migrant population in Israel by nearly half since a high of 60,000 migrants were residing in the country around 2012.

Since 2003, as many as several hundred thousand Darfurians have been killed by the almost constant Sudanese civil war and genocide, with millions more raped, wounded, displaced, traumatized or otherwise impacted.

For similar legal reasons, neither Ismail nor some other Darfurians were ever summoned to the Holot temporary detention center.

More specifically, Ismail and at least 11 others – though the Hotline believes there are many more – already have other semi-official documents from the state recognizing they are from Darfur.

These documents mention Darfur based on entry interviews to Israel of Ismail and others when they were asked what village they were from, what language they speak and other standard questions.

The state stopped sending Darfurians to detention centers in October 2016 under pressure of a previous petition to the High Court of Justice, which asked how it could detain a category of people who generally appeared to be entitled to refugee status. Then, when Holot closed in March 2018, the state totally stopped granting Darfurians refugee status interviews, according to the Hotline.

DIRECTOR OF the Hotline’s Crisis Intervention Center Alexandra Roth-Ganor told the Post that migrants over the age of 60 were generally never summoned to Holot regardless of their country of origin.

A spokeswoman for PIBA said that since Ismail had filed a request, he was never in danger of being deported or summoned to Holot, but did not respond about how he was expected to get by economically.

Rather, she said that Israel was not forcing him to remain in the country, but was also not obligated to grant him refugee status.

She responded that while in theory Israel was obligated to grant him an interview within a reasonable period of time to determine, based on objective criteria, whether he should be granted refugee status, the reality was that there were too many requests to process for the limited available PIBA staff.

Moreover, she said that Ismail’s age would not play any role in getting him a quicker interview, as PIBA staff did not learn the age of applicants until they had time to open and at least initially review their file.

Anticipating criticism that PIBA has sometimes moved faster with refugee requests from Ukrainians and Georgians, the spokeswoman went on the offensive and said that these applicants were fast-tracked in order to reject them since their applications often contained blatantly fraudulent information, not fast-tracked to accept them as refugees.

There was no explanation about why refugee status was not at least being granted slowly to a small number of applicants as opposed to simply not holding any interviews at all.

ROTH-GANOR said that the state has tried to take cover from a pending petition to the High Court of Justice over its indefinite stalling of dealing with refugee status requests, by granting special humanitarian status to some migrants.

The Hotline is aware of around 300 migrants who benefited from decisions by the state which were meant to give humanitarian statuses and estimates the number may be as high as 1,000 migrants.

Humanitarian status is also individual and can lead to breaking up families where only one parent is given the status, but not the other parent or the children connected to the parent.

In addition, there are strong protections for refugees that mostly obligate the state to renew a refugee’s status, whereas a voluntarily granted humanitarian status can be taken away on a much more arbitrary basis.

It is allegedly because of these strong protections that the state’s default policy is to simply avoid interviewing most people who it is concerned will meet the criteria for refugee status.

Furthermore, Hotline spokeswoman Shira Abbo said that even where the state supposedly made a theoretical decision to grant a person humanitarian status, sometimes it never takes action to provide that person with documents, or waits so long that the person has already left Israel.

PAST REPORTS by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira have said that the state was failing to meet minimal human rights standards for providing health care to African migrants while they were in the country. Roth-Ganor said that this is an area where Ismail and many like him are suffering, even as some like him are proud and may downplay the issue.

She said that providing proper medical care to some migrants literally “could save lives,” especially with Darfurians who had been tortured or otherwise physically or emotionally traumatized by the time they arrived in Israel.

She also said that most democratic countries, after migrants have remained for a certain time, provide much stronger minimal financial benefits for them to get by.

Roth-Ganor said that they have sent many letters to a variety of PIBA officials.

The Hotline officials said they will likely file an additional High Court petition on this specific issue if the state does not confront the alleged foot dragging in the near future.

Over the years, the Hotline has won a number of High Court decisions, but the court usually takes it time, deciding some cases after only a year or two have passed.

For Ismail and other refugees like him, by then it might be too late.

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