The first Darfuris – just 11 lone souls – crossed into Israel through the porous southern border with Egypt in 2004.
In the following years, after a deadly crackdown on a refugee protest in Cairo in 2005, the number of asylum seekers in Israel doubled. Initially, they came from war-torn Sudan and genocide-stricken Darfur, and later Eritreans began to arrive, fleeing dictatorship and lifelong military conscription.
This was the beginning of the first large-scale migration of African asylum seekers to Israel – a wave that would crest at 60,000 people before Israel completed a fence on the Egyptian border in 2012.
In the early years, none of the asylum seekers were permitted to apply for asylum. All – including children without their parents – were detained upon arrival.
Not only is Israel a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, Israeli officials helped draft parts of the document. But in the decades that followed, little was done on a legislative or policy level to ensure that the Jewish state would meet the obligations spelled out in the convention. In the past six decades, Israel has recognized less than 200 people as refugees.
When I met Mutasim Ali in the fall of 2015, asylum seekers had started to give up on Israel, and their numbers had shrunk to around 40,000.
They were leaving but they had nowhere to go. Facing lengthy stays in Holot detention center in the Negev desert, some agreed to “voluntary departure” from Israel and were sent to third countries – Rwanda and Uganda – only to head north, towards the Mediterranean. Some were killed by ISIS in North Africa’s deserts; some drowned as they attempted to reach Italy. Some live in exile in states neighboring their home countries.
In Israel, Ali is a leader of this dwindling community as the director of the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC).
He was born in a small farming village in Darfur in 1986. In 2003, on a visit to the village before starting university, he escaped an attack by the regime-support Janjaweed militias unleashing terror on the region. Two years later, the village was “burned … wiped out by the government,” Ali says.
At university in Khartoum, Ali tried to find out what had happened to his family. He was certain that his parents, brother and sisters were dead. More than two weeks later, a distant relative arrived in Khartoum with news that Ali’s family was alive and in a refugee camp in north Darfur. A decade later, they’re still there.
Ali was already politically active, but the destruction of his village and his family’s displacement further galvanized him. The Sudanese government began to arrest him the following year. Ali was 19 years old the first time he went to jail.
“I don’t feel comfortable speaking about what happened there,” he says. “You can’t even imagine that a human being can go through all of that. I never believed that I would survive.”
When he finished his degree, Ali decided to leave. He felt he had only two options: to seek refuge outside the country or “go back to Darfur to pick up a weapon and fight.”
In 2009, Ali went to Cairo, but after seeing a number of Sudanese acquaintances arrested, he soon decided to move on. He recalled American Jews inviting Darfuris to speak at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. about the genocide. “That gave me the impression that this [concern with and sympathy for others] is a Jewish value,” he says. “I thought, if I made it to Israel, I will be provided with the protection I need.”
Ali paid Bedouin to take him to the Egyptian–Israeli border. He crossed alone, at night, and five minutes later, an Israeli army jeep approached. The soldiers took Ali to their base, where they gave him water, food and a place to sleep. The next day, immigration authorities took him to Israel’s Saharonim prison.
On his first day, Ali asked to file for asylum, but the authorities refused to give him the paperwork. After two and a half months in Saharonim, Ali went on a hunger strike. A handful of asylum seekers joined him in the protest, which lasted three days.
On the third day, police officers entered the cells and hit them with sticks and batons, Ali says. He was put in solitary confinement for 24 hours before being transferred to another section.
Two months later, Ali was released from prison and given a bus ticket to Tel Aviv. When he arrived, he got lost in the maze of corridors in the Central Bus Station until a passerby helped him find his way out.
Outside, he found Levinsky Park, where many homeless asylum seekers lived; a Sudanese man escorted Ali to the Ministry of Interior where he, like all asylum seekers in Israel, got a conditional release visa. This visa does not confer any sort of refugee status, the holder is not permitted to work and it must be renewed frequently.
A few months later, Ali returned to the ministry to apply for asylum. “‘There is nothing like that,’” he recalls that officials told him. When Ali stayed in the office and insisted, the officials gave him an appointment for a year away.
In summer 2011, a year later, Ali returned for his appointment. “They gave me another appointment [in] six months. And I went in another six months and they gave me another appointment [in] six months.” On his fourth appointment, he told the clerk, “‘I need to file for asylum this time.’” Officials threatened to call immigration authorities to take him away, but he told them to give him the phone and he would do it himself. He was sick of living in limbo.
In the end, ministry officials brought him a form and fingerprinted him. It had taken Ali two and a half years to file for asylum.
Insisting on the application as Israeli politicians called the Sudanese and Eritreans “work infiltrators,” and filing for asylum while officials claim that there is no way to do so, was an act of protest.
He continued his one-man protest from detention in Holot, petitioning the Israeli government about his application for asylum and arguing he shouldn’t be detained while he submitted his asylum claim.
In July 2016, four years after he filed for asylum, Ali’s application was approved. The court didn’t rule on it so it didn’t set a precedent. Instead, Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri granted the request.
Another 1,000 requests from Ali’s fellow Darfuris have gone unanswered. Internationally, an average of 84 percent of Eritrean and 64 percent of Sudanese applicants are recognized as refugees. Israel has recognized only eight Eritreans and Ali is the first Sudanese passport holder to get refugee status.
This is an edited excerpt from Mya Guarnieri Jaradat’s new book, “The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others,” which is published by Pluto Press.
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