Tel Aviv, Asharq Al-Awsat- Salwa and Samah are two Sudanese girls, 10 and 13 years old respectively, and together they form a small but sad family. However, the familial tie that connects them is evident and strong. When they speak, they glue themselves to one another like Siamese twins, as though defending themselves against you regardless of your intentions or goals. Fear and mistrust is blatantly expressed in their innocent eyes and all that they want is for you to guarantee that they will not be divided or displaced or face an unknown future.
Today, the girls live in a shelter for African refugees (women and children) that was set up a few months ago in the city of al Karmil, which neighbors Haifa and overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. Both Salwa and Samah have temporary residence permits for living in Israel but do not speak a word of Hebrew. Their father lives in Sudan and their mother, along with two other siblings, an infant and a two-year-old, are living in Egypt but the girls do not know where. They might be in the desert or could be in prison.
All that the girls know is that they were walking in the desert with their mother and siblings until the Egyptian guide led them to the Israeli border with Egypt. They remember how the Egyptian police in Sinai conducted a raid and while Samah and Salwa ran without looking back to find themselves past the border of the state of Israel, their mother and siblings were nowhere to be found. They could only see the back of the Egyptian police car. In their disoriented state, they were arrested by Israeli army personnel along with others who had crossed the border and were taken to the jail in Beersheba.
It had been a long and bitter road that led from Beersheba to the shelter in al Karmil where they currently reside and where for the first time after many long months they are treated with compassion. The asylum, one of several houses that shelter African refugee women and children in Israel is run by Israeli and foreign institutions that are known for their human rights activities and include hundreds of Israelis, Arabs (Palestinians of 1948) and foreigners, most of whom have volunteered for this humanitarian service.
But the refugees do not feel safe and fear the future; they know that their days are numbered and that they will be deported soon. The Israeli government is exerting all efforts to ensure that they are deported as soon as possible. The tragedy that has struck the lives of these two girls has afflicted African nationals seeking refuge in Israel. Perhaps this family is more fortunate than others in that the father, who still remains in Sudan, managed to contact the girls and make sure they were safe and is currently trying to locate his wife and other two children. Most of the refugees there are completely cut off from their families and have lost one or two family members on the arduous road that begins in their homeland and ends in Israel, their destination. There are those who died of starvation or thirst while others have been killed by the Egyptian forces or due to their smugglers’ actions or neglect.
Said Darij, one of the first refugees who left Darfur for Israel today volunteers at one of the associations concerned with African refugees in Israel. He said, “We do not know who is a friend or enemy in our struggle”. This conflict has been imposed upon us from the beginning. We are honest citizens who are just trying to survive, no more, but our country’s conflicts have crushed us. At first the conflict was between the government and the rebels then there was more conflict between the militias and the people, after which there was internal conflict between the different elements in Darfur. Then there were genocide and regional and international conflicts at our expense or over our interests – we don’t know. We came to Israel without any real hope that our problems will be resolved and Israel cannot solve our problems and doesn’t want to. Every piece of bread we get here is the product of a bitter struggle and we expect them to expel us at any moment, even us; the sons of Darfur.”
In response to the question as to whether there were any recent developments, especially since the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) had announced it would open an office in Tel Aviv and whether that meant that their situation would improve, Darij said, “There is no such thing. I do not know if this allegation is a serious one. I believe Israel is trying to get rid of us not establish our presence here.”
“I do not deny that there are many good people in Israel who are compassionate and who provide us with much assistance. There are whole families that exert efforts to help us and inundate us with warmth and generosity – but the Israeli authorities are not like that. Only those who have been assaulted by the immigration police can apprehend the extent of the hatred that the Israeli leadership harbors for us. There is nothing here that we can rest assured about,” he added.
Presently, there are between 6,000 and 7,000 African refugees in Israel, most of whom are men and youth aged between 20 and 30 years old. There are women and children among them, and in the past few months their numbers have increased because whole families are now infiltrating into Israel. However, officials in Israeli institutions do not agree with these figures, they believe that it is closer to 11,000 and the Israeli Interior Ministry estimates that they will reach 20,000 by the year’s end “if the government does not take a firm stand to combat this dangerous phenomenon,” according to an official at the Israeli Housing Ministry.
The official disclosed that the number of African refugees in Israel in 2007 was 5,231 but that this figure has been rapidly increasing. In January 2008 alone, the figure was estimated at 1,000 and in the first week of last February another 500 had also arrived. At this rate, by the end of the year, 12,000 refugees will have come into Israel.
The number of Sudanese refugees among them, according to UN relief agencies for February 2008 is 2,700, in addition to 2,200 Eritreans who are mainly men fleeing compulsory conscription to the military “for an unspecified period of time and without leave,” according to one of the refugees. As for the rest, they come from Ethiopia, the Ivory Coast, Chad, Rwanda and other states. It is worth noting that there were Lebanese and Libyan citizens among the Africans attempting to get past the Egyptian border into Israel.
However, the Sudanese nationals are not only from Darfur, there are some among the refugees who are from south Sudan and others fleeing persecution in Egypt, according to some claims. The number of refugees from Darfur does not exceed 650.
Anat Ben Dor, an attorney at the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University and an activist calling for the rights of African refugees in Israel told Asharq Al-Awsat, “The wave of asylum seekers in Israel began after the Darfur issue exploded in Sudan. No one knows how Israel became the targeted state for seeking asylum or why, but we started to hear of small numbers infiltrating at first while the majority had sought refuge in other states, such as Egypt, Libya and Chad, among others. Meetings with many of the refugees revealed that they had fled to Israel from Egypt because they were treated inhumanely there. They also said that they were discriminated against because of the color of their skin. However, there are those who view that the reason Egypt refuses to assimilate them is because Sudanese refugees in Egypt have exceeded three million.”
She also added that Israeli policy with regards to Sudanese refugees (and other nationalities) changes from time to time but that the essence of the policy was to get rid of them as soon as possible – but this policy faces strong opposition from the human rights associations in Israel.
However the opposition is not only limited to human rights organizations; in fact, the social work departments in four universities have hopped onto the bandwagon; The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Ben-Gurion University in Negev, Beersheba; Tel Aviv University and the Open University of Israel. Some other universities are encouraging students to address the problems that these African families face while 63 Israeli MPs (out of 120) are calling for their support. Meanwhile, some heads of Israeli policy organizations have maintained that the state’s policy with regards to the matter is “devoid of intelligence and sound political considerations” and “devoid of humane feelings.”
Professor Yair Oron of the Open University of Israel said, “We, as Jewish people, have been oppressed and displaced throughout history and it embarrasses me to see the way the government is dealing with the situation. There is neglect of the victims of Darfur that reminds me of the world’s neglect in the face of the Nazi’s attempt to annihilate the Jews.”
Africans in Israel are distributed over various areas: Approximately 1,600 are detained in jails or are in detention camps that have been set up by Israeli prisons, while roughly 200 women and children live in shelters throughout the state and the rest are scattered between Tel Aviv and Eilat predominantly.
Some of the refugees who live in tents or cells fear that they may be deported at any point in time since they have crossed the Israeli border without official visa permits. According to Israeli allegations, Israel has returned approximately 50 Africans to Sinai, in coordination with the Egyptian government. However, relatives of these people have not been able to trace them which has prompted some human rights organizations in Israel and around the Western world to accuse Egypt of “hiding them in prisons or graves.”
But prison is not a solution and Israel at a later stage will have to settle them on its land – if sending them back to their homeland or deporting them to other countries willing to accommodate them are not viable options.
As for those who have obtained temporary residences, they can work and live on what they earn. Some of them recount horrific cases of exploitation but the majority is comfortable living in Israel, even under these circumstances. Women and children live in shelters away from prisons, the police and immigration officers but they know that they will have to leave soon. At the present time, the women engage in light work and the children go to Arabic schools in the region.
Israeli human rights organizations are collaborating with relief agencies in an attempt to convince the Israeli government to keep the refugees from being deported to a third country – at least until the crises and wars in their countries are over. Many parties are lobbying for the cause including American Jews and international human rights organizations.
The Supreme Court of Israel had previously intervened in the Darfur issue and the government had declared that it was willing to recognize the refugees from Darfur but was not willing to accept the rest.
According to the Attorney General, assimilating all the refugees would pose a threat to state security; however he states that accepting them would be an unprecedented development since they number tens of thousands. He added that there was a fear of “terrorist organization infiltration through agents sent into Israel”, in addition to a chief demographic concern, “Israel wants to preserve its character as a Jewish state, which is the reason it refuses to accept Palestinian refugees – so how could it accept other refugees, and how would it be able to justify that [absorbing African refugees] to the international community?”
The Israeli government’s position is becoming increasingly stringent; over the past few months 700 refugees arrived in Israel via the Egyptian border in Sinai. Israel fears this flow as it knows that there are approximately three million in Egypt alone.
Meanwhile smuggling has become a lucrative business for many; people wanting to leave Sudan for Israel need to pay US $2,000, while those who arrive at al Arish in Sinai pay US $500 and there are discounts for families. Bedouins from Sinai are the ones who organize these trips without collaborating with any companies.
On a daily basis, the fate of African refugees and that of their families remains uncertain.