Minister says Sudan deal to include sending back asylum seekers

Citing recent violence in the Darfur region, Hotline for Refugees and Migrants claims repatriation would endanger Sudanese refugees in Israel

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

African asylum seekers seen during a protest outside the Ministry of Interior in Tel Aviv, Israel, February 11 2014. (Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
African asylum seekers seen during a protest outside the Ministry of Interior in Tel Aviv, Israel, February 11 2014. (Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

A prospective peace deal with Sudan will include a provision to repatriate thousands of the East African nation’s citizens currently seeking asylum in Israel, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen said on Wednesday.

“As long as there is a peace agreement, it should and will include the issue of returning infiltrators from Israel to Sudan” Cohen told Channel 12 news, using the government’s term for African migrants who slipped into Israel in the thousands via the Sinai before the construction of a border fence.

“There has been no talk of numbers yet. That will happen as the talks progress and we reach the stage of signing an agreement,” Cohen said.

His comments came a day after Sudan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed that talks with Israel were underway and said a deal could be clinched by the end of the year, apparently responding to Cohen’s earlier statements on the matter.

The comments were swiftly disavowed by Sudanese acting Foreign Minister Omar Qamar al-Din Ismail, who said he was not aware of talks. The spokesman, Haidar Badawi Sadiq, was fired on Wednesday.

Cohen told Channel 12 news that peace talks between Jerusalem and Khartoum were ongoing despite Tuesday’s denial.

Israel has for years sought to repatriate or deport to third-party countries the tens of thousands of African asylum seekers in the country, most of whom live in south Tel Aviv. The government claims many of them are job-seekers and accuses them of bringing crime to the area.

Minister Eli Cohen at the Ministry of the Economy in Jerusalem, May 18, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In response to Cohen’s comments, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a local advocacy group, harshly criticized the possibility of repatriation under a peace deal. The group says any such move would endanger the more than 6,200 Sudanese asylum seekers currently in the country.

“In recent weeks alone, a number of horrific massacres have been reported, in which dozens of people have been killed,” the group said in a statement, noting that many of the victims were displaced persons attempting to return to their homes in the country’s Darfur region.

“Optimistic quotes about normalization talks and contacts won’t succeed [in overing up] the horrific devastation that the regime in Sudan continues to inflict on its own citizens.”

More than 300,000 people have died in Darfur since 2003, when locals rebelled against the country’s central government, prompting violent reprisals which human rights groups have described as a genocide. While dictator Omar al-Bashir was deposed last year, many senior members of his regime still hold positions in Khartoum.

Since al-Bashir’s ouster, hundreds of Darfur residents have been killed and thousands displaced in a series of attacks by Arab Janjaweed militias.

Residents dig a mass grave for victims of an attack that left over 60 dead in the village of Masteri in west Darfur, Sudan on July 27, 2020. (Mustafa Younes via AP)

“The political situation in Sudan isn’t stable and the people that rule the state today are the same ones who were involved in the genocide in Darfur, which still happens today,” Hotline spokeswoman Shira Abbo told The Times of Israel.

She said there was “no real connection” between diplomatic relations and the obligation to provide asylum to those in danger, pointing out that Israel maintains relations with Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo “and at the same time a policy of not deporting citizens of those countries back home, because it recognizes that it would put their lives at risk.”

Despite being in Israel for years, asylum requests by some 4,500 Sudanese migrants are still pending and only one has been granted refuge, Abbo said, adding that “as an Israeli I can only wish that Israel would somehow pressure Sudan to stop the massacres in Darfur and bring peace to its own people.”

Detainees at the at the Holot detention center for African asylum seekers in southern Israel, on February 17, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Sudanese transitional leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Uganda in February. At the time, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel that the two had agreed to gradually normalize relations between the two nations, which remain technically at war.

Israel officials have long expressed a wish for improved ties with Khartoum, citing its importance in the region as well as its geographic location.

Raphael Ahren and Agencies contributed to this report.

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