African migrants to Israel: Detain, deport or ignore their existence?

Stranded in limbo...

AFRICAN MIGRANTS are seen in South Tel Aviv last July. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
AFRICAN MIGRANTS are seen in South Tel Aviv last July.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Darfurian Sudanese Hashim Beya Dambai Ismail has not been summoned to any of Israel’s detention centers; nor has he been pressed to be deported to Rwanda or Uganda.
Unlike many African migrants from Eritrea and other parts of Sudan, and some younger Darfurians, he has just been ignored by the state.
That means no benefits, no pension and a very hard time at finding a job for this 69-year-old – but also no active punitive measures.
Sitting before the Magazine and answering questions about how he feels about the Jewish state, if he thinks he is being treated fairly and whether he wishes he had stayed in Darfur, Sudan, one can see that Ismail is simply lost.
Without the presence of the skillful Arabic translator, his sense of being lost could have been attributed to not understanding the Hebrew questions being asked.
But Ismail was very comfortable with the translator and with expressing himself, including placing his hands on his head in frustration. He also kept lifting up documents from the state which preliminarily recognized he is from Darfur, and became very animated answering the Magazine’s questions in a recent interview at the offices of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.
The thing was that even translated into Arabic for him, his thoughts simply were not on the level of identity and philosophy.
One question after another ended with the same answer.
“When will you Israelis give me a pension or let me work?” That is all he said he wanted. One or the other. And he did not care much which, though most 69-year-old Israelis would probably be happy if they could retire and live off a pension.
Ismail did not have high ambitions, nor was he demanding much beyond a roof over his head and a bit of dignity to pay minimal necessities.
WORKING WITH migrants at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants’s Tel Aviv offices. (Credit: Courtesy)WORKING WITH migrants at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants’s Tel Aviv offices. (Credit: Courtesy)
He did not even seem interested in getting better healthcare from the state. This, despite that officials from the Hotline present for the interview suggested that many like him desperately need better healthcare from the state, but are too proud to admit it.
What broader lessons can we learn from Ismail’s story about the African migrant issue in Israel – which after seven years of struggle has receded from the headlines even as over 35,000 migrants remain of the up to 60,000 migrants who were here as of 2012?
On one hand, there seems to be very little to learn from Ismail.
At 69, he is much older than most migrants who have succeeded in crossing illegally into Israel.
Of the around 35,000 migrants who have not left or been deported since 2012, only a few thousand are from Darfur, like he is.
So he does not represent what most African migrants in Israel, the Eritreans and the non-Darfurian Sudanese, are going through.
Unlike Ismail, for most of the time since 2012, the state was theoretically aggressively pursuing placing Eritreans and non-Darfurian Sudanese in detention centers, or at a later date, pursuing deporting them to Rwanda and Eritrea.
THE DETENTION centers and the deportations were never actually capable of addressing the full 60,000 migrants, but since no one knew who would be pursued, it was a potential scenario for anyone.
Through these policies, the state in a sense, has had at least half “success.” Almost half of the once 60,000 migrants have left the country.
Furthermore, no significant new numbers of African migrants have made it into the country since the state completed a full-scale wall on its border with Egypt in 2013.
If there might have been a threat of the country being overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of African migrants, that threat has not been credible for some time.
Some will criticize Israel for its past policies, saying that Jews of all people, who have a history of being “strangers in a strange land,” should have reached out to and integrated these migrants.
Some will praise the state for the past policies, saying they were necessary to preserve the country’s fragile Jewish identity in a world where Jews have no other refuge, and migrants usually do.
But that debate is almost obsolete at this point.
After a series of decisions and hearings by the High Court of Justice, the most recent in mid-April 2018, the state can no longer detain large numbers of migrants for long periods of time and can no longer deport them en masse to Rwanda and Uganda.
It also cannot deport them to Rwanda and Uganda because those states got sick of accepting the migrants.
At this stage, the only question would seem to be, is there any other way the state can legally convince the remaining 35,000 migrants to leave, and if not, how best can it integrate them?
This sidesteps the question of whether the remaining migrants fit the criteria for refugee status under the international Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, which Israel ratified in 1954.
And the state, by its actions, or rather non-actions, has seemed to have made it clear that whether migrants fit the criteria for refugee status is not a high-priority question for it.
Here, Ismail as a Darfurian, drives this point home that the state does not really care or differentiate between those who deserve refugee status and those who do not.
What is important about Ismail and Darfur is that there is no current serious debate about whether most Darfurian Sudanese fit the criteria for Israel to accept them as refugees.
Since 2003, as many as hundreds of thousands of Darfurians were killed with millions impacted by the occasionally off, but mostly on, internal Sudanese civil war and genocide.
WHEN THE Magazine contacted the Population Immigration and Borders Authority about the issue, there was no attempt to deny that someone fitting Ismail’s profile technically would be entitled to refugee status.
This general point was admitted by PIBA.
Rather, there were explanations about extenuating circumstances for why granting such status was being indefinitely delayed.
Essentially, the PIBA spokeswoman said that the agency lacked sufficient resources to process all of the requests in a timely manner.
Having arrived in Israel in September 2011, Ismail filed his request in March 2017 and has not been called in for an evaluation, let alone gotten close to a decision on his refugee status.
There is some confusion surrounding the question of whether he has been evaluated or interviewed, as he was given an entry interview when he first came to Israel.
But the bottom line is that he and a few thousand others like him are stuck in a holding pattern.
PIBA has fast-tracked requests of non-Africans from Ukraine and Georgia at the same time that it is sitting on African refugee requests.
It explained to the Magazine that the fast-tracking is not to give these other groups favorable treatment, but to quickly reject them since most of them have no basis for their requests and many of them even provide obviously false information.
So PIBA agrees that Ismail and most Darfurians like him probably deserves refugee status, but is finding reasons to indefinitely delay granting those statuses.
Another response by PIBA was that it is not forcing Ismail and those like him to stay here – they can leave at any time.
Where the High Court has intervened demanding that the state end years of stalling on old applications for refugee status, the Hotline explains that the state has found a creative solution.
Rather than granting refugee status, which would set a precedent and “open the floodgates” for thousands of other refugees to get permanent recognition by the state, it has granted a humanitarian status.
The humanitarian status, the Hotline for Migrants and Refugees explains, is useful for the state because it addresses the needs of specific petitioners (estimated at around 1,000) and gets the High Court off of its back, but avoids setting a precedent.
The Hotline explains this is because humanitarian status is granted voluntarily, out of grace from the state, and not because the state is obligated.
Incidentally, it is also much easier for the state to take away a humanitarian status at any time as opposed to refugee status, which has far more guaranteed legal protections.
WHAT IS the endgame goal of the state at this point?
The Magazine’s exchange with PIBA was revealing.
Currently, the state’s policy can be summed up by one word: denial.
All of the ideas to get the migrants to leave: several versions of detention and deportation, including deportees getting paid a few thousand dollars, have “succeeded” somewhat, but left the state with 35,000 migrants.
POST RELEASE, African migrants walk out of Saharonim Prison in the Negev on April 15, 2018. (Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)POST RELEASE, African migrants walk out of Saharonim Prison in the Negev on April 15, 2018. (Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Call it a half-victory, half-loss for those who wanted all of the migrants to leave. Those who have wanted the state to integrate the migrants are appalled by the state’s policies for the last seven years, but now have some faint hope that the state will integrate those migrants who remain.
Some of the 35,000 are here because the state knows it cannot deport them and that they are pretty much entitled to refugee status.
Others might be here merely for economic reasons.
The great debate about Eritreans is whether the country’s forced draft into the army counts as systematic persecution (a significant number of army draftees are tortured or killed), and whether fleeing that draft is an economic decision or a decision to flee persecution.
Non-Darfurian Sudanese cannot be sent back to Sudan, because Israel has no diplomatic relations with Sudan regardless of whether they left for economic or persecution reasons.
Theoretically, the state might be able to send those who came for economic reasons elsewhere, but the somewhere else still must meet certain minimal standards of safety and that somewhere must be willing to take them.
So the state knows it cannot compel most of the remaining 35,000 migrants to leave en masse, but it also does not want to announce they can stay.
If you cannot get someone to leave, but don’t want them to stay – and you are a politician – denial is not a bad option.
There was one brief moment where the state almost agreed to let 20,000 migrants stay, which shows how precarious the idea of letting migrants stay still is politically in Israel.
In early April 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a sudden and dramatic announcement that after 12 years of debate, an answer had been found to the migrants’ dilemma.
Netanyahu said in a televised speech to the nation that of Israel’s 35,000 plus migrants, around 16,000 would be sent to Western countries in an orderly manner over five years, while all or most of the other around 20,000 would get to stay.
The 16,000 number always raised questions. But the announcement that around 20,000 migrants would finally be distributed into different parts of the country and integrated into society seemed like a major turning point.
It seemed to end the 12-year fight between the government, the migrants, the courts, the UN and human rights groups.
At least for a few hours.
Then Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett attacked Netanyahu for being weak on the migrants issue. Interior Minister Arye Deri let it be known that he had not been consulted or approved the policy. As suddenly as he announced the deal, Netanyahu dropped it.
It seems that domestic political attacks were not the only cause.
Some Western countries who the UN and human rights groups had promised would receive some of the 16,000 migrants came out publicly against accepting them.
After years of criticizing Israel, when the government finally seemed ready to take a “fair share” of migrants if others assisted, it seemed there was no shortage of hypocrisy.
This fed Israeli officials who all along had said that many countries in the world were no more willing than Israel to take African migrants permanently.
It is also not as if this is an issue where Israel’s political Left is pressing in the opposite direction for migrant rights.
Centrist and leftist politicians like Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and Avi Gabbay have voted for or declined to oppose Knesset laws put forward by the Netanyahu governments designed to pressure migrants to leave.
To date, Benny Gantz has not commented on the issue and it does not appear that the Blue and White Party has considered it important enough to come up with a position.
Meretz may be the only party which consistently opposes such laws.
So denial is actually a pretty realistic policy. This is especially true as long as the migrants keep to the sidelines and do not make too many waves in the news.
ALL OF this brings us back full circle to Ismail.
If the state was slowly approving a small number of refugee requests only for Darfurian Sudanese like Ismail – and as a 69-year-old, he is a classic case where the state could take pity – then it could claim it was just moving slowly and that its entire policy was not denial.
If the state was rejecting Eritrean and non-Darfurian Sudanese refugee requests, there could be a spirited debate about whether the UN, England or other fact-finding missions best summarize the situation in Eritrea and Sudan regarding whether there is systematic persecution or whether the countries are just dirt poor like much of the planet.
But zero refugee Darfurian requests are getting approved, according to PIBA. The PIBA spokeswoman said that Ismail will not get any special attention at this point, because no one is even opening his file long enough to notice that he is approaching his eighth decade.
The reason for this is phrased in terms of scarce resources.
Yet anyone who has followed the issue long enough knows that resources are just a question of priorities, and that PIBA has been repeating for years that it was soon going to do better once it got more resources.
For example, when similar issues arose in April 2017, PIBA told the Magazine that at an undefined time in the future, it will expand to a larger office space to take in more requests.
Pressed at the time about why it had not opened Internet registration as a solution, a PIBA spokeswoman responded, “We are doing the best we can to handle the issue... Providing a ‘band-aid’ solution to the problem will not solve it… the situation does not revolve around registration, but around capacity to receive requests and other issues.”
Pushed further at the time about what would be a reasonable time-frame, the PIBA spokeswoman refused to “toss out fake times… we are working on it as much as possible.”
Nothing has changed since April 2017.
So it is not resources really, but denial.
And this is why Ismail may be more coherent and incisive than he seemed to the Magazine at first.
Questions from the Magazine about how he feels about the state, whether he wishes he came here – these are interesting questions at the point where the state is debating what to do with him.
But there is no debate right now.
Anyone in government working on the issue knows the dirty secret that at least some migrants, like Ismail, could have had refugee status years ago. This is true even if those opposing the migrants might have solid arguments for debating the status of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees.
Ismail knows this and realizes he is being ignored.
He accepts it on questions of identity.
In this case, all that matters in the now is whether someone will give him a job or a pension.
If he is going to be denied and ignored, he just wants to know how he can eke out his existence in the meantime.