As Sudan forges ties with Israel, what status do migrants have?

Much attention has been given to haredim and Arabs during the coronavirus era, but what of Israel's African migrants, whose status is still under dispute?

Migrants protest their potential deportation with a mock slave auction outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv in 2018 (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Migrants protest their potential deportation with a mock slave auction outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv in 2018
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
What a difference a decade makes.
About 10 years ago, African immigrants were pouring into Israel over the Sinai/Negev border in huge numbers. At the height of the early 2010s, the annual numbers reached almost 60,000.
At different points the state ignored the issue; built a barrier along the border to stop the unauthorized influx; tried to pay migrants to move to Rwanda and Uganda; and toyed with a UN-sponsored deal to coordinate resettling some migrants in a variety of countries while allowing others to stay in Israel.
While media attention in the corona era has lasered in on groups like the haredi and Arab sectors, one area that has been underreported has been how corona has impacted the approximately 31,000 remaining African migrants residing in Israel whose status is in dispute.
To that end, the Magazine recently interviewed Hotline for Refugees and Migrants spokeswoman Shira Abbo and African migrant activist Ghere Meles.
ACCORDING TO Abbo, the African migrants’ situation is broadly similar now to what it was at the beginning of 2020: somewhat frozen by the coronavirus crisis. Until March, small numbers of migrants were occasionally being accepted into Canada, but those flights ended when the pandemic hit.
Of the approximately 31,000 African migrants still present, they can be broken down as 22,000 Eritreans, 6,000 Sudanese and a mix of around 3,000 migrants from an assortment of other countries. If corona suspended the fight over whether migrants will be deported or get to remain in Israel, in many respects there are new, numerous corona-specific challenges for the migrant community and society. Red tape, for one, is harder to cut through in this era. As Abbo noted, “Since the start of corona, people were unable to come to government office hours to have their temporary residency visas extended.”
It was very touch-and-go in March, but by June, the initial government solution was that migrants would continue to hold onto their old and expired physical visa, while printing out an extension page from a government website. Despite a prior High Court of Justice win that should have allowed a 12-month periodic visa extension for the Sudanese and a six-month extension for Eritreans, the government website in June extended visas only through August. In June, the website was accessible only in English and Hebrew, which left many migrants helpless to understand how to extend their visas.
Abbo said the website also was generally not user-friendly and that it took even her professional staff time to figure out how to properly enter information – which required some mathematical calculations regarding visa expiration dates. After months of dialogue, the government was convinced in August to simplify aspects of the process.
Abbo said that the Hotline “helped hundreds of people register online to extend their visas. We got Sudanese volunteers who understood the system to help others. There was a major operation. We became almost like a second branch of the Interior Ministry,” for facilitating requests for visa extensions through the website.
While in other periods during the last decade the Hotline has accused the Interior Ministry of intentionally using bureaucracy to make migrants’ lives difficult, Abbo said that in this case, many of the problems just came from the suddenness of the corona crisis. She said the ministry rushed to set up a website, however defective, to take over renewing visas due to social distancing requirements.
A twist in this story? Now that the website has improved, Abbo said, there is hope it will continue after corona and replace the in-person visa renewal process, which had been a huge burden. But the future “is unclear and that it is very tricky.”
A related challenge was that this new online visa extension “looks like a fake… banks and employers did not know what to do with it,” since it had no photo ID and appeared to be a shabby forgery. Only in late October did the Interior Ministry finally add a photo and a clearer sign that it is an official government document to the online printout extension visas, which may ease the concerns of banks and employers.
REGARDING INTERACTING with banks and migrants’ ability to pay for basic needs during the corona era, the question of whether funds could be released to migrants who presented official yet strange-looking visa extension documents has been crucial. On April 23, the High Court ordered the state to release special deposits to migrants. Until then, 20% of migrants’ salaries were held by the state as deposits as part of government policy.
Yet even when the state’s opposition to releasing these deposits was overruled by the High Court, in practice many migrants were unable to access these funds due to the banks’ confusion about the veracity of the extended visas.
For some migrants, it took months to access their deposits and some still have not succeeded to date – all this after winning a long battle before the High Court. In one case, Abbo described an Afula resident who was able to receive his deposit funds only after a native Hebrew speaker volunteered to go three times with him to the bank, where he was a client and knew the manager personally. These issues are less legal than socio-cultural deficiencies in understanding among the lower-level local bank officials who handle these issues. There even was a regulation issued in 2013 that should make all of this much smoother, but to focus banks’ attention and overcome the socio-cultural issues, Abbo hopes the country’s bank inspector will reemphasize the 2013 regulation in a public manner.
Part of what has improved the situation is that the Hotline “established a dialogue with the state inspector of banks and explained all of the many technical issues”; despite this, corona has sometimes intervened to make withdrawing funds impossible. Often the banks are locked down, have limited office hours or require registering by phone for an appointment, which some migrants have trouble with due to their obscure status.
African migrant activist Ghere Meles (left, at the hotline) (COURTESY - HOTLINE FOR REFUGEES AND MIGRANTS)
African migrant activist Ghere Meles (left, at the hotline) (COURTESY - HOTLINE FOR REFUGEES AND MIGRANTS)
WHILE THERE has been some progress in the above matters during the corona era, in regard to reviewing Sudanese requests for recognition of refugee status, Abbo said, “there has been no progress” at all.
For years, the state has declined to accept or reject nearly all of these requests, hoping to resolve the issue some other way, such as convincing the migrants to leave. The last hearing of multiple consolidated petitions to the High Court (one filed by lawyer Tomer Varshaw and one by lawyers Carmel Pomerantz and Michal Pomeranz), to force the state to make decisions on refugee requests, was in September. At the time, the High Court granted the state at least three additional months to work out how Israel’s changing relationship with Sudan could alter the social and legal situation for Sudanese migrants residing here.
On October 25, the Hotline responded to leaks from government officials that they would cut a deal with Sudan to send back thousands of Sudanese migrants in Israel. The Hotline said the vast majority of African migrants will not necessarily be sent back to their countries of origin. This is despite the Sudan-Israel normalization process.
Furthermore, the Hotline said that of the around 31,000 African migrants currently in Israel, only around 6,200 are from the Sudan region, and of these 4,400 are migrants from the Darfur, Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile regions which have special problems with returning persons. In other words, the NGO said that since there is still a civil war and war crimes affecting migrants from these regions, the group of 4,400 could not be sent back.
Until now, Israel’s main legal position for being unable to send Sudanese migrants back to their country of origin was the absence of diplomatic relations. Besides the additional war crimes and safety issue involved, the Hotline said that 5,119 Sudan-region migrants have filed requests to be recognized as refugees. These requests must be individually reviewed and processed, the Hotline pointed out, and the group as a whole cannot be simply ignored and sent back to Sudan.
Moreover, the Hotline said the state has previously committed to the High Court that it would not send any migrants back to the Sudan region if there was any kind of danger due to instability and/or war. Abbo said the Hotline would not necessarily oppose the return of migrants to Sudan across the board as it does with Eritrea. Some Sudanese migrants in Israel are, “very involved remotely, trying to make a better situation there and want to go back if things really get better.”
The whole legal process for migrants is still backwards, the Hotline maintained. In other countries, legal proceedings are over whether to grant special rights and state support to migrants. In contrast, in Israel the focus is simply whether migrants can be deported or get to stay on the basis of a temporary visa and limited rights.
DESPITE THE diplomatic developments with Sudan that could impact up to 6,200 Sudanese migrants in Israel, corona has led to at least greater temporary recognition of migrants’ plight by the state. From the start of the crisis, the National Security Council and the police both declared a shift in policy, framing migrants as a segment of the Israeli public.
Abbo said that as the state “declared a change in the dialogue surrounding haredim and Arabs,” it also recognized that the migrants as a group are “part of the social fabric of Israel. These people live here. Corona exposes that we cannot put people in a box and hope they won’t impact us.
“Israel is a small state. We are the same society and what happens there [with migrants] impacts all of us,” she said.
Speaking with migrant activist Ghere Meles, the Magazine detected a mix of exhaustion from the pressures of corona on one of Israeli society’s weakest sectors, along with pride in having achieved some unprecedented unity and organization.
“Generally, the situation regarding corona is very difficult. You can imagine most people from the refugee community are working in the restaurant and cleaning industries. All of these areas are highly affected by corona,” said Meles. “The majority of people are jobless. It is difficult for them to pay their rent, to manage their lives. People were getting infected by the disease, but they don’t have insurance. They are worried that they won’t be cared for by the health system. For someone who is infected, there is no place for them to quarantine away from their family because everyone lives together [in a small apartment].”
Meles said governments need to figure out how to hold up the entire range of social groups in their societies. Eventually, “we understood we would not be excluded. When the Israeli government started to assist, we saw things would be different for our community” than in the past. With the shift, “people can get treatment, family members can be taken to [corona] hotels. This minimized the [danger] from the issue. But there is tons of uncertainty. We started to organize ourselves to help our community and establish a leadership.”
With a glimmer of hope, he said, “We had an awareness campaign to ask the government to release our deposit funds. When the Supreme Court intervened to [get the funds] released, it was very helpful” – though not everyone received them. “We try to be a mini-government inside Israel for the community. We saw things were a mess with [a lack of] information, for corona and for a lack of food or rent money.”
He explained that activists are now trying to use “social media to bring information to the community and to translate everything [corona updates] from the municipalities.” Recounting founding a food distribution group, he said, “at the beginning, we focused more on single mothers and people with health problems. We made a campaign with the Israeli public. Thanks to them, we were able to get a lot of food donations – one of the amazing achievements in the process.”
Moreover, Meles said they had worked with humanitarian groups, “the Health Ministry and the IDF Home Front Command to help with epidemiological investigations. We were very helpful in updating them and working on the probe” and navigating testing with insurance companies. “The government found we are very effective and easy to communicate with,” he added.
Both the Health Ministry and the IDF generally confirmed there were liasioning efforts between them and migrant community representatives to cope with various corona issues. The ministry emphasized the linkage as part of its concern for the health of all human beings here, while there was no denial of the contribution of migrants’ leaders in contact tracing and other areas.
But there are unresolved issues. With rampant unemployment, many migrants face eviction due to an inability to pay rent. Told that there are special laws in place to block evictions during the corona period, Meles responded, “We heard something about it, but it is not helping the community… Even if there is such a thing, the landlords don’t agree. There is no protection… People beg for money from the community. People are taken out [evicted] to the street.”
Abbo interjected that landlords technically “need to take a lot of measures to evict someone. Legally, people have the right to stay most of the time. But most people won’t know that. People are very afraid… They don’t know about their legal protections.” In terms of eviction, “the mental effect is just crazy. People already have PTSD from their home countries.”
Meles said that education is “the worst problem. There is no computer. No Wi-Fi. No Internet because people cannot pay every month… I do my best with two children” at home. “I can understand it is very difficult also for many parents” who lose their jobs because they must stay at home with their kids.
“This is a big burden on the community.”
IN THE midst of this broader problem for African migrants, a new crisis is brewing for another forgotten group of Africans. In 2012, 27 Ethiopian women came over to Israel from Egypt. They had been kidnapped from Ethiopia as teenagers, between the ages of 13 to 20, and were sold into the sex slavery trade in the Sinai.
“They went through hell. Somehow with assistance from family or people they met along the way, they were able to get a ransom paid leading to their freedom,” said Abbo, as the Hotline has tried to help the group with Israel’s authorities.
Some of the 27 were declared sex-trade victims by Israel from the start. Others were given this recognition by the state at a later date because it took them more time to come forward and present what they had gone through to Israeli authorities.
In the last 12-18 months, some of these women who had requested refugee status started to get rejections. Abbo said they were given poor legal advice, since victims like themselves have a different and special humanitarian status. She added that they should not have applied to be refugees, which actually created new problems.
In mid-October, the Knesset subcommittee on combating the slave trade slammed state representatives who arrived at the hearing unprepared to present a coherent position about how the state planned to handle the group, who everyone acknowledges are slave-trade victims.
The state ostensibly had extensive time to prepare prior to the hearing. However, most of the sum total of what the state representative said at the Knesset hearing was that the Ethiopian women’s situation was complex and they were waiting for Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to weigh in.
Abbo asserted, “It was embarrassing to see this,” that the state representative hedged on whether the state is even looking at the Ethiopian women as a group or as individual cases.
The Hotline’s position is they should be handled as a group because they were abused as a group, imprisoned as slaves as a group and came to Israel as a group.
“This happened to them together,” she emphasized. It seemed the state had ignored the issue, she said, and was suddenly caught like a deer in headlights when it realized the situation was getting media attention and Knesset scrutiny.
An unspoken implication has been that due to being preoccupied with corona, the state simply buried the issue. To date, the Knesset subcommittee has not provided a firm deadline for the state to respond, but Abbo said this could be a next step if the state continues to drag its feet. One positive from the hearing was that the state did not come out clearly against the women being able to remain in Israel: “This could be a good sign.”
Nothing is resolved for either the broader group of African migrants or the 27 Ethiopian female slave-trade victims. But just as corona has changed the lives of pretty much every other group on the planet, these groups will continue to try to live and struggle on in the age of the pandemic. 