What does the Sudan-Israel peace deal mean for Sudanese migrants?

SOCIAL AFFAIRS: Out of the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers who came to Israel in the past 20 years, only a handful has gotten refugee status.

ALI ABAKER ADAM: All of us are afraid of being deported. (photo credit: Courtesy)
ALI ABAKER ADAM: All of us are afraid of being deported.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ali Abaker Adam, dressed in a natty striped button-down shirt and dress shoes, strides across Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv. He’s a sharp contrast to many of the asylum-seekers who hang out here – a few of them are homeless and even live in the park.
Adam has an MA in human rights law from the Hebrew University and is one of the spokesmen of the 6,200 Sudanese asylum-seekers in Israel. Most have been here for close to a decade, and say they eventually want to return home. But they say it is too soon, and they worry that the Israeli government will use the normalization agreement with Sudan as an excuse to deport them.
Sudan is the third Arab country to agree to normalize ties with Israel under the umbrella of the Trump Administration’s Abraham Accords. As part of those accords, the Jewish state has already signed normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Israel has ratified its treaty with the UAE and Bahrain, but the deal with Sudan, reached on October 23, has yet to be formalized.
“We are very happy about the peace treaty,” Adam says. “But we have some reservations and some questions.”
Among those reservations, he says, is the issue of the makeup of the provisional government in Sudan. Some of the officials in the current government were part of the Janjaweed militia which had forced many of the asylum-seekers to leave Sudan in the first place.
“The situation in Sudan is not safe enough, especially in conflict areas like Darfur,” he says. “The people on top of power in Sudan committed genocide and war crimes against us in Sudan. It is not reasonable that we go and ask for safety from them.”
He says his whole family is still in Sudan, and he wants to go back and “help build my country,” but it is not the time to do so. In addition, he says, many of the migrants’ family members are still living in refugee camps, either in Sudan or in neighboring Chad.
Other Sudanese asylum-seekers agree. Bushra Musa, a father of three who has been in Israel for 13 years and runs a store that sells phone cards near the Tel Aviv bus station, says he is worried.
“All of us are afraid of being deported,” he says. “I am from Darfur, and every day there is worse than the day before. I want to go back to my country, but this is not the right time.”
Like many asylum-seekers, he says he wants to return to his country when there is real peace. He says that while his wife is Sudanese, they have several close Israeli friends. But when it comes to the Israeli government, he, like most asylum-seekers here, has little positive to say.
OUT OF the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers who came to Israel in the past 20 years, only a handful has gotten refugee status. The rest, who have outstanding claims, are living in a legal limbo.
At one point the number of asylum-seekers in the country swelled to over 60,000, but the number is currently about 33,000. That number includes the 6,200 Sudanese, and the rest are almost all Eritreans
Israel is set to send a delegation to Sudan to discuss cooperation in agriculture and trade. Israeli media reports say the two sides have also discussed a plan to send some of the migrants back to Sudan.
According to the reports, the asylum-seekers will not be forced to leave, but will be given incentives, including grants of several thousand dollars and guarantees by the United Nations and the Sudanese government for their safety.
It sounds very similar to a previous Israeli policy for “voluntary” deportation in which thousands of Eritrean asylum-seekers have left for Uganda and Rwanda over the past few years. They were given a choice of going to jail or agreeing to leave the country.
Most chose to leave, and the Israeli government gave them $3,500 and a one-way ticket to either country, with promises that the government there would help them find housing and jobs. However, the housing and jobs failed to materialize, and some ended up homeless and on the street. In the past two years, few have agreed to leave.
“Actually, since 2013 when Israel started the ‘voluntary leave’ procedure, thousands of Sudanese and Eritreans have moved to Rwanda and Uganda, which offered them no safe haven, despite the promises of the Israeli government,” Sigal Rozen, of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, says.
She says that the government has promised the Supreme Court it will not deport asylum-seekers until their claims have been examined. Israel has so far not been willing to recognize the vast majority of the asylum-seekers as refugees, which would make Israel responsible for their safety.
Most of the asylum-seekers are on a “conditional release document,” Rozen says. Only about 100 of the refugees have received a temporary status.
“There are 5,119 Sudanese who applied for asylum years ago and received no answer to their request,” she says. “Only one asylum-seeker received refugee status, Mutasim Ali, and he’s no longer here, because he moved to the US.”
Most of the African asylum-seekers came to Israel via the Sinai desert, after many of them had spent years in Egypt and were often mistreated. They paid smugglers to take them across the Sinai, and there are many reports of rape and robbery.
Upon reaching Israel they were arrested by Israeli soldiers and police and taken to the Holot detention center, which has since been closed. Some spent months in Holot, before being given a “conditional release,” meaning they are allowed to stay in Israel while their asylum claims are being processed.
Of more than 5,000 asylum-seekers who have registered claims for asylum, only one has actually received it. The rest live in a type of legal limbo – they are not arrested and are allowed to work, but they have no official status.
The Supreme Court has ruled that children of asylum-seekers can receive free education like Israeli citizens, and employers have to pay for medical insurance for them.
“The problem arises when either they get sick and can’t work or are laid off, like during corona,” Rozen says.
MUSA SAYS he has Israeli friends and that many Israelis have been kind to him. When the asylum-seekers first arrived and the government struggled to help them, many private initiatives were set up, including soup kitchens and shelters for them.
Over time, many of the asylum-seekers have found jobs and rented apartments, many in south Tel Aviv.
Corona has made their situation more difficult. Many who worked in restaurants and hotels, which are shut down, have lost their jobs, along with the health insurance. Children often don’t have computers or a quiet place to study on Zoom.
The Sudanese asylum-seekers say they eventually want to return to Sudan. But until then, they want the Israeli government to investigate their refugee claims and give them the refugee status they say they deserve. At the very least, they want a promise they will not be deported until the situation in Sudan stabilizes.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.