Seeking Asylum, Sudanese Face Israeli Prison

Israel Building Detention Center for 15,000 Refugees

History of Pain: Sudanese refugees from Darfur, where the government has been accused of genocide, visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
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History of Pain: Sudanese refugees from Darfur, where the government has been accused of genocide, visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

By Ben Lynfield

Published October 19, 2012, issue of October 26, 2012.
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Hamad, who arrived in Israel in 2008, initially served 40 days in prison for illegally entering the country from Egypt, then worked in housekeeping at a hotel and as a carpenter — illegally, since the asylum seekers are not allowed to obtain work permits.

He fled to Libya and Egypt before making it to Israel, a pattern common to many of the Sudanese asylum seekers. In Libya, Hamad said, he was told to work as a slave and, while in Egypt, he and the other Sudanese felt physically unsafe after security forces killed 28 asylum seekers at a protest site outside United Nations refugee agency offices in Cairo in December 2005.

“It’s all blatant racism there,” he said. “Here the racism is inside, not outside. It’s better that way.”

Faced now with the prospect of indefinite detention without trial, Hamad had no doubt about his choice, if forced to choose.

“If I were to go back to Sudan it would be bullets, and here it is prison,” Hamad said. “I’ll take prison.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has supported the argument by the Sudanese that their claims to refugee status should be investigated and that they should be afforded protection, not imprisoned. But Israel, which considers them illegal immigrants, has balked at processing and adjudicating all but a handful of their asylum claims.

Interior Ministry spokesman Ohad Yehezkeli said that imprisoning the Sudanese was justified, among other things, as “a message to [other Africans] on the way to Israel, and it also tells the infiltrators who are here that they are at one step before their being taken out of the country.”

To underscore his determination to imprison the Sudanese, on October 10, Interior Minister Eli Yishai paid a well-covered public visit to the newly built detention facility in the Negev desert, which is to hold the Sudanese asylum seekers.

Yishai first announced plans in August to jail all Sudanese asylum seekers without trial, starting on October 15. The plan is to be expanded to include Eritrean asylum seekers at a later stage.

But on October 11, Justice Nava Ben-Or of the Jerusalem District Court barred implementing the plan before at least October 30, when she will hold a hearing on a petition against the arrests filed by five civil and refugee rights groups, and strongly backed by the UNCHR.


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