'Nobody wants to be a refugee': Israel's asylum seekers speak out

In light of a new governmental plan to encourage asylum seekers to leave Israel, we speak to those affected, and those assisting them.

 USUMAIN BARAKA and friends from his high school in Yemin Orde. (photo credit: Usumain Baraka)
USUMAIN BARAKA and friends from his high school in Yemin Orde.
(photo credit: Usumain Baraka)

Usumain Baraka, a 28-year-old Sudanese refugee, doesn’t take it for granted that he can live in Ra’anana and not worry about the government telling him to uproot his life and move to the periphery. While he holds legal humanitarian status in Israel, many of his friends live in panic about a proposed regulation to evict asylum seekers from various cities in Israel and force them to relocate to state-specified locations.

The plight of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel returned to the headlines earlier last month with a new plan by the government to encourage them to leave Israel.

“Their policy is to make [our lives] more difficult,” says Baraka, who came to Israel in 2008 as an unaccompanied minor fleeing from the armed conflict in Darfur that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Today, the comments of Baraka, an activist seeking to bridge Israel-Sudan relations, are in response to Israel’s oft-changing policies surrounding how it handles asylum seekers and refugees, people the state lumps together and refers to as “infiltrators.”

The latest government proposal is a plan by the Foreign Ministry to provide professional training courses to Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers on the condition that they will leave the country willingly. This new plan, announced in June 2023, was proposed by Likud lawmaker and chairman of the Knesset’s Special Committee on Foreign Workers, Eliyahu Revivo.

 BARAKA AT a demonstration of the asylum-seekers community where he was an organizer. (credit: Usumain Baraka)
BARAKA AT a demonstration of the asylum-seekers community where he was an organizer. (credit: Usumain Baraka)

“It makes no sense that a democratic country with a clear immigration policy would allow illegal trespassers to gain status, without a clear say from the people and the authorities,” Revivo tweeted in April 2023. “As the chairman of the Special Committee on Foreign Workers, I work day and night for effective enforcement against the infiltrators and for the voluntary departure of the Sudanese and Eritreans to third countries.”

The new proposal to train asylum seekers and refugees professionally and then send them to another country is now in its early planning stages. But Revivo’s proposal follows on the heels of a different plan by the Interior Ministry, which calls to prohibit the employment of asylum seekers in 17 Israeli cities, such as Tel Aviv, Eilat, Jerusalem, and Haifa.

That regulation, initially meant to go into effect in October 2022, was an administrative guideline set into motion by Ayelet Shaked, the former interior minister. The regulation drew a petition from human rights activists and was pushed back to commence in early 2023, and then pushed back again.

“It’s a procedure of the Interior Ministry stating that people who are asylum seekers, or whom they call ‘infiltrators’ – people who entered Israel through the Sinai border illegally – can only work in certain jobs and can only live in certain cities,” says Shira Abbo, public policy director at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.

“Part of what makes it so challenging is that it’s not a law in the Knesset; it was just the decision of a minister and [they have] the authority to make it. The law in Israel gives the ministers a lot of authority, and you have to make a really good case in court to try to challenge it.”

KAV LAOVED (Worker’s Hotline) and other NGOs were behind the petition against the 17 cities proposal. Even without being enacted, the proposal put asylum seekers and refugees in limbo, not knowing whether or not they would be ordered to leave their homes and relocate to a government-endorsed city in which they can live and work. Now the Foreign Ministry has simultaneously put a new policy on the table.

“This law is so complex and confusing, and only makes it harder for asylum seekers. They are the ones who are paying the price for this, not only by having the pressure of the law constantly over their heads, but also having to live under a constant state of confusion about their living status and situation,” Abbo says.

Indeed, Baraka has hopped around the country, living in a variety of places before ending up in the central city of Ra’anana, some 20 km. from Tel Aviv. While he is not in danger of being forced to move should this plan go into effect, he is certain such a plan will have a great impact on the asylum community.

Most asylum seekers in Israel primarily reside in regions characterized by a relatively lower cost of living, specifically in the economic periphery of Israel. These areas include neighborhoods in southern Tel Aviv, and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Eilat, Arad, and Ashkelon.

“The life of asylum seekers, refugees, or migrants is different from Israelis who are living in the same place,” says Baraka, who has lived – not out of choice – in many cities around the country.

Nobody wants to be a refugee

Baraka gives a face to a community that the government would prefer most Israelis don’t meet.

“I’m not an infiltrator, I’m a refugee,” he says.

Since arriving here as a young teenager, the 28-year-old Baraka has made it his life’s mission to serve this country. Today, he is a co-founder of the African Students Organization, which aims to promote cooperation between Israeli citizens and African asylum seekers through education programs and exchanges.

The seeds for his move to Israel took root in 2003, when the war in Darfur broke out. At just nine years old, he was forced to leave his hometown. After losing his father and his older brother in the genocide, he was moved with his mother and younger siblings to an internally displaced persons camp in Sudan, and then to a refugee camp in Chad.

At 13, when most Israeli children are gearing up to celebrate their coming-of-age ceremonies with parties and friends, Baraka set off to Libya, leaving his family behind to search for a better future. He was soon forced to go to Egypt, and there, in Cairo, heard about Israel. He paid a Bedouin smuggler to help him get to here.

Baraka was left 40 km. from the border. Together with nine others, he was told to walk through the border. Only six people survived the journey, after being fired upon by Egyptian soldiers. He felt afraid and ran for his life as he heard the gunshots. When he and the remaining group crossed the border, they encountered Israeli soldiers who, contrary to the Egyptians, did not shoot at them.

Baraka recounts how the Israeli soldiers gave his group food and water, and then took them to jail. He was 14 years old by the time he touched Israeli soil for the first time.

“I found a lot of good Israelis… there are always good people,” says Baraka, one of the country’s most outspoken refugees. “I feel that I’m welcomed in this society and this country. But not really welcomed by the government. So that’s why I have to separate society, country, and government.”

Baraka’s life in Israel has been about giving to the Israeli community, as well as growing into who he is. He volunteered in the National Service; was awarded the African Refugee Scholarship (which allowed him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in government and diplomacy relations and an MA in public policy from Reichman University); took part in the Rabin Leadership Program to mentor high school students on social activism; and continues to “advocate to improve the lives of the African community living in Israel and refugees around the world,” as he writes on his LinkedIn profile.

In 2018, Baraka was a member of the Poland delegation from Reichman University and had the opportunity to witness the evidence of the Nazi terror, which he says was impactful and moving for him. “As a genocide survivor, to see the way the Holocaust was, it was so hard for me,” he reflects.

Keday Ali is another face behind the government’s designation of “infiltrator.”

Ali, a 36-year-old from Sudan, also studied at Reichman University, through the African Refugee Scholarship granted to refugees and asylum-seeker candidates with strong leadership potential and who can serve as role models for their community.

A member of the African Students’ Organization, where he took on the role of chairman and project coordinator, Ali gave up on Israel in his final year of communications studies last year and immigrated to Canada. His whole family, still in Sudan, depends on him for support.

In Israel, he shared accommodation with others and lived in Tel Aviv, Herzliya, and Haifa during his 12-year stay here. If the geographical ban had gone into effect, he would not have been allowed to live in any of these places.

“To be a refugee is not easy. You’re always being belittled. You’re being overlooked. And you’re not given a right that you deserve as a human in the first place,” writes Ali, who now lives in Toronto, in an email exchange.

“Nobody wants to be a refugee,” he says, noting that his intention was to go to Egypt to study after leaving Sudan. However, due to the Arab Spring, he was forced to come to Israel. “And nobody wants to be treated badly. Israel is a refugee country, created by Jewish refugees from across the world. It should be welcoming, regardless of color, race, or religion.”

A welcoming country?

The majority of the 25,500 asylum seekers living in Israel are from Eritrea and Sudan, according to Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority. As of 2023, only 31 have been recognized as refugees.

“In the eyes of the government, they are infiltrators who have entered illegally. They just crossed the border. They’re not viewed by the government as real refugees who need help,” says immigration lawyer Joshua Pex, who has spent more than a decade assisting clients to obtain legal status in Israel.

The government’s measures against African refugees and asylum seekers have been used as a political playing card, Pex notes. In 2012, the Knesset approved Amendment No. 3 to the Prevention of Infiltration Law of 1954, commonly known as the Anti-Infiltration Law. This amendment categorizes people who enter Israel through irregular means as “infiltrators,” without considering their reasons for doing so.

According to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, an “infiltrator” is defined as “a person who is not a resident of Israel, who entered Israel not by way of a border crossing”; after illegally crossing the border, they apply for asylum.

“Immigration of foreigners raises problems, and there are racist elements within Israeli society everywhere… as well as between political parties that may be using the fear of foreigners for their political advantage,” Pex says. An example of this can be seen in earlier remarks made by Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who in 2012 referred to African asylum seekers as “a cancer in the body” of the nation, when waves of asylum seekers were arriving in Israel.

The government stance over the years has maintained that for the vast majority of those seeking asylum in Israel, the country is not their first port, thus they do not meet the status of refugees. The majority have also entered Israel illegally or overstayed their visas, they point out.

The Jerusalem Post made repeated attempts to ascertain a response from the government to the charges made by the asylum seekers and their advocates. We reached out via email with questions for the Special Committee on Foreign Workers; however, the committee’s former spokesperson responded that he no longer works there. From our understanding, a new spokesperson for the committee has not yet been appointed. Several attempts to reach the committee by phone were unsuccessful.

Despite Israel’s being a country with a very strong tikkun olam (repairing the world) ideology, the government has not shown much interest in helping asylum seekers and refugees. In fact, with its latest policies on the table, the opposite seems true.

“The government doesn’t see itself obligated to help in any way,” Pex says.

But human rights activists do feel an obligation.

Since 2018, Abbo, from the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, has been working to protect the rights of asylum seekers living in Israel.

“I do this because I care deeply about my country and the society I live in, and I want it to be better. My goal is that Israel will be a welcoming country that respects the freedom and life of every person,” she says.

Regarding the new policy proposed by the Foreign Ministry, Abbo explains that Israel remains bound by its commitment to the UN Refugee Convention, as well as the fundamental principles of respecting the life and freedom of every individual, regardless of identity. These obligations persist, and no agreement or arrangement can eliminate them.

The Refugee Convention does not require people to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. This is why the belief that the Israeli government does not consider the majority of asylum seekers as refugees is not accurate because Israel was not their first stop after fleeing the country they came from; many stopped in other countries in Africa, especially Egypt.

“It’s a common belief in the Israeli public, but it’s more of a myth,” Abbo writes. “The convention does not require you to apply for asylum in the first country you enter, as in many cases those first countries are not safe.”

MOST OF the African asylum seekers living in Israel crossed into the country through the Sinai border between 2007 and 2012, after fleeing wars, genocides, and dictatorial regimes that denied their citizens human rights.

Asylum seekers can stay in Israel under a temporary permit (2A5 visa), also referred to as a “blue paper,” which has to be renewed every few months (this varies, depending on the situation). They are not allowed to re-enter Israel if they leave, and their families are not allowed to visit them. Until 2018, holders of this permit were not permitted to work.

Israel’s reputation in regard to refugees and asylum seekers has been called “disgraceful,” “racist,” and “shameful” by humanitarian activists over the years, as the country’s government leaders devise ways to rid the country of African migrants.

“We can see how, with the passing of years, the country has treated this population like no other country has treated their asylum seekers before. In a bad way, of course. So all the steps that were taken [by Israel] were for only one reason: to try to make these people [the asylum seekers] leave, make their lives harder so they would want to leave,” says Lior Malka, Kav LaOved’s lawyer in charge of the refugees and asylum seekers department.

The world refers to asylum seekers and refugees as people in need. According to the UNHCR Refugee Convention, a refugee is defined as a person who has been forced to leave his country due to “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”; and an asylum seeker is someone whose request for refugee status has yet to be processed.

Israel is a signatory of the Refugee Convention, which also sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grant it. Nonetheless, individuals who have left their country due to factors such as civil war, unfavorable economic conditions, or the desire to enhance their standard of living by seeking employment in a developed nation, do not qualify for refugee status in Israel.

“An asylum seeker is a person who filed a request to be a refugee but whose request is pending,” explains Malka, who has been working at the Worker’s Hotline since 2020. “We know there are approximately 26,000 applying for this status, but there are very few who receive refugee status in Israel.”

“As a refugee, I thought the people who went through genocide in Germany may know how to treat me as a refugee from the genocide in Darfur, but that was not the case,” Ali says.

Voluntary return

Baraka is working hard to connect the Israeli and Sudanese communities.

“How to make a cultural bridge between Africa and Israel, that is what I’m starting. And I do believe that one day, I will make more connections between Israel and Africa, for people living in Africa and also in Israel,” Baraka says excitedly.

Meanwhile, Ali, from his home in Ontario, is bitter about the time he spent in Israel. He holds steadfast that it is a human right to seek asylum, and that those in need should be treated in the best possible way. “I said to myself, ‘Let me go to a place where people know who is a person that has survived genocide. They may know how those people who are being treated so badly and suffered from genocide and ethnic cleansing can be treated better,’” he writes in an email.

Toronto is giving Ali what he expected to get in Israel.

“I’m doing great… nobody here cares if you are a refugee,” says Ali, speaking about Torontonians. He works as a consultant at the Canadian Center for Victims of Torture, where they assist individuals who have survived torture, war, genocide, and crimes against humanity, aiding them in overcoming the enduring impacts of such traumatic experiences.

Even though he is miles away from Israel, he still follows the news of what is happening with the asylum seekers, his friends, and his community in Israel. He is the first to admit that he left with mixed feelings.

“From the government side, nobody helps except [helping to deport you]. They call it a voluntary return. That’s what they give everybody who wants to go because they want to get rid of you,” he says.

“The Israeli government didn’t help me, but Israeli people helped me. If I have any chance to go back to Israel, I can go visit, but I will not ever go to stay in Israel as a citizen because I’m not welcome because of my skin color,” he charges.

Both Baraka and Ali had very different experiences living here. Yet, when asked what advice they would give someone leaving Darfur right now, they both agree on the answer: “Do not go to Israel.”  w

This report was written as part of the investigative journalism course at the Communications School, Reichman University.