MKs pledge to grant legal refugee status for Sudanese prisoners

Braverman and Erdan, on visit to Maasiyahu prison, vow to take action.

Sudanese refugees 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sudanese refugees 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
One must wonder how Musa sees the world. A black Muslim refugee from the Sudan, Musa's refusal to be drafted into the Sudanese army to fight the Arab janjaweed militiamen led to the burning of his village and the murder or disappearance of his 16-member family. Yet those who carried out the retribution killings were not government forces, but Arab militiamen themselves, armed by the Sudanese government, the very men whom the Sudanese military was trying to defeat. But when Musa fled that catch-22, he landed himself in another one: he has been imprisoned in Israel for eight months while the government finds itself institutionally incapable of granting him refugee status. Now, a new initiative promised on Sunday by MKs from the Knesset Foreign Workers Subcommittee may finally change the status of Sudanese refugees in Israel. While on a visit to Maasiyahu Prison on Sunday to see the Sudanese incarcerated there, MKs Gilad Erdan (Likud) and Avishay Braverman (Labor) promised to enact legislation that would grant them refugee status. Israeli authorities have been systematically unable to find a solution for them other than imprisonment. The history of their incarceration is a sad tale that leaves many questions unanswered. Until January 2006, anyone fleeing the Sudanese genocide who landed on Israel's southern border was held by the security services under the Law of Entry. After the Justice Ministry's review tribunal, which has oversight of those held under this law, released a handful of Sudanese, the security establishment acted to remove all civilian oversight from the imprisonment of the Sudanese. In January 2006, the Sudanese were officially placed under military expulsion orders by the IDF. Though the state was aware from the start that it could not expel the refugees back to Sudan, it used the expulsion orders to place them in a legal limbo allowing for indefinite imprisonment. Israeli law does not mandate juridical oversight for the holding period that precedes expulsion, since it is meant to be short. Some of the refugees, however, have been in this limbo for over two years. In April 2006, private civil rights activists petitioned the High Court of Justice to rule against this legal tactic, and the court's ruling led the state to appoint a special adviser to the defense minister who would interview the prisoners and give recommendations for their release. The adviser - a jurist from the Justice Ministry - began work in August 2006, and has interviewed nearly all the estimated 220 Sudanese claiming refugee status in Israeli prisons. A handful - about 30 - were released to live on kibbutzim, working for pay in kibbutzim they are not permitted to leave. For most, however, even this situation was not available and 190 remain in Israeli prisons. The catch-22 comes from several directions. The defense establishment has claimed that the refugees are held because they are "a security risk," since they are citizens of Sudan, an enemy state that has no diplomatic relations with Israel. Ties have been alleged, said to be supported by intelligence information, to al-Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations. But this claim seems weak in the face of the conditions of their imprisonment. Many have free access to phones and Prisons Service officials told the MKs visiting Maasiyahu prison they had experienced virtually no trouble in dealing with them. Maasiyahu Prison commander Rami Ovadia even declared he has not received "one shred of information" related to security concerns of the prisoners. Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry's Director of International Organizations and Human Rights Daniel Meron, told The Jerusalem Post that the government was concerned about millions of Sudanese refugees in Egypt and elsewhere hearing that Israel was granting refugee status to those fleeing the Sudan. Meron emphasized that the government was working to assist international efforts on behalf of the Sudanese, even contributing a symbolic sum of money and offering Israel's considerable professional expertise in medical and psycho-social relief and emergency management. Until now, Meron noted, Israel had found itself unable to contribute to the extent that it wished, but was in "ongoing discussions with [the UN] on where we can help." But the Foreign Ministry's desire to contribute to international efforts does not help those few refugees currently in its hands. For the activists working for the release of the Sudanese prisoners, the solution to the problem is simple. "If Israel were to absorb some of them, other countries might take the rest," said Sigal Rozen, who volunteers to help with the Sudanese issue while also directing the Foreign Workers Hotline in Tel Aviv. "What moral or legal justification does Israel have to ask others to take them in, when it won't take even one? Why would Australia want them if Israel claims they may be connected to al-Qaeda?" While there is no immediate timetable for the legislation promised by Erdan and Braverman, the initiative was received with gratitude by activists. "It's the only solution," said Rozen, "since they're not going to disappear. They're not going to evaporate away."