In a groundbreaking decision, the Interior Ministry granted refugee status for the first time to a Sudanese refugee from Darfur, a 29-year-old activist named Mutasim Ali.
“I really hope it will be a turning point for African asylum seekers, I really think Israel can turn asylum seekers into a contribution to this country,” said Ali.
“I am really happy and excited, but my happiness will not be complete until I see everyone in my community getting this status,” he said.
From 2009 through the beginning of 2015, Sudanese asylum seekers, including Ali, have submitted 3,165 requests for asylum, according to documents provided to the High Court of Justice during a February 2015 hearing about the amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, Haaretz reported.
The state has responded to 1.42% of these requests, or 45 people, rejecting 40 outright and granting temporary protection to five people. Ali is the first Sudanese national to gain residency according to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention.
Ali said the military regime destroyed his village in 2005, forcing his parents to flee to a displaced persons camp. While at university studying geology, Ali participated in the Sudanese Liberation Army, a rebel group opposed to the military regime. His involvement, which he said was non-violent, led to multiple arrests and solitary confinement in Sudan.
Ali arrived in Israel in 2009. Once in Israel, Ali tried multiple times but was unable to submit an application for refugee status until 2012. He spent a total of 14 months in the Holot detention facility.
Under the agreement reached on June 23, Ali will be able to work legally, receive National Insurance coverage, and will have a travel document that can be utilized as a passport, according to his lawyer, Asaf Weitzen, the legal department director Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.
Ali said he is still letting last week’s news sink in, and hasn’t even had time to celebrate with his friends, though he has received an outpouring of support from well-wishers on social media. He is not sure where he will work, though he plans to stay in Israel, as moving to another country would require going through the refugee process again.
Ali will be a resident, not a citizen, of Israel, a status will be similar to the Arab residents of east Jerusalem. Unlike Arab residents, Ali will be required to renew his status every year at the Ministry of the Interior. Weitzen said it is highly unlikely that the Ministry of the Interior will revoke Ali’s refugee status, as it requires a complicated international legal process.
“I really hope it will affect other refugees,” said Weitzen, noting that more than 1,000 African refugees are in advanced stages of the application process. “It shows that through hard work, someone who is a refugee can receive that status.”
However, the spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry’s Population Immigration and Border Authority, Sabine Hadad, said Ali’s approval was a unique situation. “His request met the standards of international requirements for asylum seekers,” she said. “This approval was given only due to his specific details, and does not mean anything about anyone else.”
“This is not part of a mass effort, this is a single individual,” Hadad said. She added that Ali’s approval does not change anything for other asylum seekers, even those with similar situations. “No two people have exactly the same reasons; there will always be a small difference.”
According to the African Refugee Development Center, there are approximately 46,437 Africans in Israel who consider themselves asylum seekers. The majority, 73%, are from Eritrea, and approximately 19% are from Sudan.
Between 2009 and 2015, 2,408 Eritreans requested refugee status in Israel. The Interior Ministry granted refugee status to four.
Israel’s approval ratings for refugee status are drastically lower than international levels. According to the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees, internationally, 84 percent of Eritreans and 56 percent of Sudanese asylum seekers received either refugee status or extended protection in 2014.