When Usumain Baraka was 9 years old, the Janjaweed came to his village in West Darfur.
The militia of nomadic herders backed by the Arab-dominated Sudanese government had been terrorizing black farmers in Darfur, often with aerial bombardment supplied by the Sudanese military, as part of a long-running civil war. In Baraka’s village, the armed group carved a path of death and destruction.
“I saw them kill my father and big brother,” Baraka told The Times of Israel recently. “It was the first time I’d seen a dead body. They killed women, old men. It was a catastrophe. Hundreds of people were killed.”
Today, Baraka is 26 and one of tens of thousands of African asylum seekers who fled to Israel to escape wars, brutal dictatorships and other hardships. But while Israel has provided them a safe haven from massacres and repression, it has also proven unwilling to recognize them as refugees or otherwise integrate them, leaving them in limbo or at risk of being sent back to the hells they escaped from.
For most of that period, Israel has been led by governments dominated by anti-migrant politicians. Any hopes that the new government that took over in June would mean their salvation, though, dissipated with the appointment of anti-migrant hardliner Ayelet Shaked from the nationalist Yamina party as interior minister. Faced with a campaign seemingly designed to make life in Israel as uncomfortable as possible for the migrants, many no longer see Israel as a place to run to, but rather another country to escape from.
“People no longer have hope that something will change,” said Sumia Omar, a migrant from Darfur, who said she knows of some people who have even returned to fight the Janjaweed. “I’ve been here 10 years already, and don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. Between 2014 and 2015, local Israelis would throw eggs and water at us, and steal our bags. It’s a bit better since then, but people are still getting beaten up. I would like to go somewhere else.”
Shaked wasted no time in making clear that she would brook no major deviation from the old government’s policy regarding the asylum seekers, or infiltrators, as she and others refer to them. On her first full day on the job, she said at a ceremony marking her taking over the post from Shas’s Aryeh Deri that she would “work to return infiltrators to their country and encourage voluntary departure to safe third countries.” She went on to pledge to “work with all my might to implement a responsible migration policy, while providing a suitable response in proven humanitarian situations.”
Yamina’s policy on migration, shaped by Shaked, calls for “ensuring the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state for generations to come.”
The plan, announced in January, included amending the law on entry to the country to ensure that the migrants get no status unless mandated by the Knesset or the courts; promoting an Infiltration Prevention Law, which has been rejected three times by the High Court; banning migrants who have applied for asylum from working in their first year; returning Sudanese migrants once a peace agreement with Khartoum has been signed; introducing regulations to ensure speedy reviews of “fictitious” asylum requests; and passing a law to deduct a “deposit” from the wages of migrants who find work, returnable only on their departure from Israel, which would reinstate a practice ruled illegal by the High Court last year.
The plan is an outgrowth of a deal Shaked struck in 2019 with Sheffi Paz, an outspoken anti-immigrant activist who leads the so-called South Tel Aviv Liberation Front, which purports to represent Jewish Israeli residents of the working-class neighborhood where many migrants also live and work.
“At the same time as applying sovereignty in the Jordan Valley, we also need to apply sovereignty to south Tel Aviv,” Shaked said at a 2019 event, echoing a common complaint from Paz and others that Israel has ceded control of the area to the migrants. (She was referring to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex the Jordan Valley.)
As justice minister in 2017, Shaked accused the High Court of degrading Israel’s Jewish character after it ruled against the government’s policy of indefinitely jailing asylum seekers who refuse deportation. Hours after the ruling, she announced plans to introduce legislation allowing Israel to deport migrants even without their consent.
Shaked’s plans would affect some 31,000 African migrants in Israel, including 22,000 from Eritrea and 6,000 from Sudan. According to a September report from the Tel Aviv-based Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, 18,000 Eritreans and 5,000 Sudanese migrants have applied for asylum.
In Eritrea, thousands have fled the brutal dictatorship of Isaias Afewerki, who has led the country since 1993 and requires compulsory military service that can last for 40 years. In 2016, a UN commission said the conscription was a form of “enslavement.”
Asylum seekers from Sudan have fled Darfur’s long civil war and campaign of government-sponsored terror, as well as ferocious crackdowns in the Blue Nile region in the southeast, and the Nubian Mountains in the north.
In West Darfur alone, hundreds of thousands were killed in the conflict and more than 2.5 million were displaced, either internally or to camps in neighboring countries such as Chad.
‘At least check things out’
In 2013, the influx of African refugees, which began in 2006, came to halt when Israel completed a wall along the Egyptian border.
Since 2006, just one Sudanese asylum seeker, Mutasim Ali, and 32 Eritreans have received refugee status under the Refugee Convention, according to the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority. (In 2007, a few hundred Sudanese were granted asylum on humanitarian grounds via a government decision, although the Interior Ministry took years to recognize this).
By contrast, in 2019, 68% of Sudanese asylum requests and up to 86% of Eritrean ones were accepted in Europe, according to the European Asylum Support Office. According to the Hotline, Israel’s recognition rate for all refugees of all nationalities is less than one percent.
Israel’s policies for Africans run in stark contrast to those for Jews and those with at least one-quarter Jewish heritage, who are granted citizenship automatically under the Law of Return.
The Interior Ministry referred media inquiries to the Population and Immigration Authority, which did not respond to requests from The Times of Israel to respond for this story.
Many politicians, Shaked included, suggest that most of the Africans in Israel are really looking just to better their lives economically.
“They aren’t refugees,” long-serving former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting in 2017.
“Or at least most of them aren’t,” he added. “Most of them are looking for jobs.”
Israel was an early signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, a pledge never to return refugees to a country where they face serious threats to their lives or freedom, though economic migrants are not generally considered to be eligible.
While both Sudan and Eritrea have seen changes in recent years, few regard either country as safe for the return of asylum seekers.
In Sudan, dictator Omar al-Bashir was deposed in 2019, after leading the country since 1993. Since then, a peace agreement has been signed between armed groups and Sudan’s transitional government, which has moved closer to the West. In December, the 13-year mandate of a joint African Union and United Nations peacekeeping mission came to an end.
But in Darfur, violence has flared again. According to The New Humanitarian, which reports from crisis zones in Africa, rebel groups and Janjaweed-linked militias are still active, and at least 1.5 million people are still in displacement camps.
The deputy head of the transition government in Khartoum, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, is a former Janjaweed leader. A merging of the Sudanese armed forces and rebel groups fought by the Janjaweed, mandated by the peace deal, has yet to take place.
In 2018, Eritrea signed a peace deal to end decades of a cold war with Ethiopia, which Afewerki had used to justify the long conscription of military recruits and other rights abuses. But many of those brutal policies have remained in place.
“Eritrea has not yet put in place an institutional and legal framework to uphold
minimum human rights standards in a democratic society,” the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in the region said in June.
“The Special Rapporteur is concerned that the indefinite duration of military and civil service reportedly remains one of the main causes for the departure of Eritreans from their country.”
In many countries, the timetables for handling asylum applications are enshrined in law. An EU directive, for example, stipulates examining an application within six months, with the possibility of an extension of nine additional months in complex cases, and a total of 21 months. The US Immigration and Nationality Act calls for applications to be examined within six months of a request being filed, except in extraordinary cases. In Israel, the Interior Ministry’s glacial pace for considering asylum applications has drawn official rebukes from the State Comptroller and others.
Until 2009, the United Nations dealt with asylum applications, passing recommendations to Israel’s Interior Ministry, but none regarding Sudanese or Eritreans were accepted.
In 2009, the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority set up the Refugee Status Determination Unit, but there was no way to apply for that status until 2013.
Indeed, the state has yet to formulate an official policy for adjudicating asylum requests, despite multiple pledges to the court that it planned to do so, the most recent of which was given in October 2018.
In April, after deliberating for four years, the High Court ordered the government to consider the asylum applications of the migrants from Sudan by the end of this year.
If the state fails to do so, it will be required to grant temporary residency to 2,445 Sudanese asylum seekers who submitted their requests before June 2017.
This does not take into account a similar figure of Sudanese who applied after June 2017.
“Sudanese requests have not been reviewed to this day,” said Shira Abbo of the Hotline.
She noted that until 2018, Eritrean requests were summarily rejected on the basis that deserting military conscription is not a reason to claim asylum. In 2018, an appeals court ruled that this blanket policy was wrong.
“It may be that some of those who haven’t submitted requests are seeking a better life. We say to the Interior Ministry, at least check things out according to international standards,” said Abbo. “They know how to check East Europeans quickly enough because they can deport them. In this case, they want to leave things open until there’s a window and they [the Africans] can be expelled too.”
‘No way to live’
As it cannot send them home, Israel has given the Sudanese and Eritreans legal permission to stay, via a status called “conditional release,” which affords only the most basic of civil rights. The Interior Ministry has refused to grant them the more robust temporary residence status, which comes with an identity card that enables one to properly function in most walks of life, though some, like Baraka, have managed to acquire the status anyway, often via the courts.
“With this, you can leave the country and come back,” Baraka said of temporary residency. “You can open your own business. You can work anywhere too — employers are often wary of conditional release. People behave very differently when you have a proper identity card.”
The refusal to grant temporary residency status is part of what appears to be an attempt to make sure African migrants are unable to get to comfortable in Israel and in many cases want to leave. Other steps toward the same goal taken by successive governments toward this end have been curbed or struck down by the High Court.
One such move was to jail migrants arriving from Africa, first at Saharonim Prison and later at the specially built, now-closed Holot Detention Center, both in the Negev Desert in southern Israel. Another, in 2018, was to try to send them to other African countries in a bid to placate veteran Israelis living in south Tel Aviv who wanted their African neighbors out.
In 2011, the High Court ruled that people who employed refugees and asylum seekers could not be fined, de facto, for doing so, allowing the foreigners to work. But to this day, the government charges employers a Foreign Workers Tax equal to 20% of the worker’s salary.
In 2017, Israel began a highly controversial policy of forcing employers to deposit 20% of the workers’ salaries in escrow, returnable to the worker only upon their exit from the country. Last year, the High Court ruled that the arrangement was unlawful and ordered the state to refund the migrants. Only then did it emerge that some of the employers had allegedly pocketed the cash.
Shaked argued at the time that the policy had been effective in encouraging migrants to leave the country, and used it to push for legislation that would give lawmakers the ability to override the High Court.
Chief Justice Esther Hayut responded with data that showed Shaked’s assertion regarding the policy was “inconclusive.”
Nonetheless, many migrants appear to be leaving or trying to. “Most of the community is trying to relocate. This is not a way to live. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” said Ori Lahat, CEO of the African Refugee Development Center.
According to the Hotline’s Abbo, hundreds of Eritreans leave for Canada each year, sponsored by countrymen who already live there. “You land there and get refugee status right away,” she said.
‘My life has ended’
Darfurian Sumia Omar has no such connections.
Omar, 37, fled from Sudan to Egypt in 2009, after the Janjaweed attacked her village and murdered her mother. At the time, Omar was away studying microbiology and computer science at Khartoum University.
In Egypt, she could not work and had to be supported by a brother. Aware that Egyptian soldiers were shooting at people trying to cross into Israel, and that some Bedouin smugglers in the Sinai were holding and torturing refugees for ransom, she nevertheless paid to be taken to the Israeli border.
Her group was treated well, but another that she saw had clearly been starved and beaten, she recalled. The Organization for Assistance to Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel says that 4,000 migrants were abused on their way to Israel, and are not receiving any kind of care here.
Upon reaching the Israeli border, soldiers told Omar and the others that they could not enter, so the group spent another two days, without food, taking an alternative, mountainous, route to enter.
Once in Israel, she was taken to Saharonim Prison, where she stayed for 60 days, and then, like so many others like her, she was put onto a bus and dropped, without money or food, in south Tel Aviv. There, she managed to track down a friend who had arrived before her.
Omar eventually married a man named Izzedine who had been able to get a temporary residence permit, which provides most rights aside from political participation.
Unable to study at an Israeli university because of poor Hebrew and the high cost of tuition, Omar instead taught computer skills to refugee women at the Bnei Darfour organization. She went on to work for the ARDC, where her roles included leading a women’s leadership course and organizing an anti-deportation march.
Today Omar is a stay-at-home mom for her two boys, ages 5 and 2. “It’s very hard,” she said. “All the child-rearing falls on the mother and there’s no family here to help.”
Migrants also often lack the financial means to pay for classes or activities after schools let out in the early afternoon.
“Sumia and I have kids of the same age,” said the ARDC’s Lahat. “My son was born prematurely and gets after-school help to enable him to catch up. Sumia can’t get help like this and it’s a big frustration.”
A Haaretz report in December found that most children of African migrants in Tel Aviv were being placed in classes without any Israeli children, sparking accusations of segregation. The city said children were placed in classes based on their place of residence.
Asylum seekers are also not eligible for national health insurance, though those with jobs are supposed to receive employer-funded plans that give them access to local clinics. Buying a plan with even limited coverage can be expensive, and most, Sumia included, cannot afford it.
“The differences start at birth. If you’re an asylum seeker with Sumia’s status, you have to pay to give birth, or buy health insurance,” said Lahat.
During the coronavirus crisis, migrants have had access to testing, vaccination and hotel rooms for those who are sick or need to quarantine.
A few community members were also recruited by the Health Ministry to help with contact tracing and outreach.
But successive lockdowns that shuttered the food and tourism industries, where an overwhelming majority of migrants work, hit the community hard, and organizations such as the ARDC were called on to provide aid.
Izzedine, who had worked as a cook at a restaurant, lost his job for five months, and was not eligible for unemployment benefits. He and his wife barely scraped enough together to make rent payments of NIS 4,600 ($1,400) a month for their 50-square-meter (540-square-foot) apartment. Other families moved in together to save money.
“My life has ended,” said Omar, recalling her once-bright future. “Now I must invest in my kids’ future, which has already been destroyed in so many ways.”
‘We are survivors’
In another apartment down the same road, Jaah Adam, Jos Nof and Adam Yahya were huddling around a computer working on the latest rap song for the Dream Boys, a group they created while being detained at Holot “to explain to people what’s going on with us.” All are from Darfur’s Masalit ethnic group.
“We don’t blame Israel,” said Adam. “They protect us and give us opportunities. But we do want people to know that we have a beautiful country but that we can’t stay there. We want them to accept us for what we are.”
Nof was less positive. “We feel like Israelis, but we don’t have the papers and they still call us infiltrators.” Said Yahya, “The politicians say things about us and people believe them.”
Each man has a spine-chilling story to tell. Nof, the youngest, was 15 when he got to Israel in 2010. His father was murdered by the Janjaweed and his mother is in a refugee camp in Chad.
“The village was attacked early in the morning in 2003. I was 8. They came in on horseback. They came with fire. They burned houses down with people in them. The dogs, animals, people, children — everyone scattered. I ran. I joined some kids that I knew and we crossed the border to Egypt. I was there for two years, homeless, in Cairo. There were so many kids there without parents.”
Nof said there were men posing as UN workers offering to reunite children with their mothers. “They took me to some place,” he said. “And I noticed that every day they took two to three kids away who never came back. Maybe they were sold. Maybe they took them for their organs. So I ran from there too.”
By 2005, Nof was homeless, living in Cairo’s Mustafa Mahmoud Square, close to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), where refugees had set up a camp to protest conditions in Egypt and demand to be resettled elsewhere.
On December 30, 2005, Egyptian security forces violently shut down the camp, killing at least 27 migrants and wounding or detaining hundreds more. The massacre prompted many refugees to leave the site and try to make it to Israel.
“I was there when they opened fire,” said Nof. “It was terrible. After they closed the camp I went to the UN but the lines were so long and they didn’t want to deal with a boy on his own.”
Despite the horrors experienced by many of the migrants, Israel offers few mental health or counseling resources.
In that respect, Usumain Baraka was lucky. After arriving in Israel, he was taken to the Yemin Orde Youth Village, a boarding school near Haifa. There, people took note when he woke up crying for his mother in the middle of the night and he was given psychological help.
Others are less fortunate, like Nof, who has never been to school and taught himself to read and write in Arabic and English. He speaks only a little Hebrew.
“The street has taught us everything, ” he said. “We are survivors.”
The three men, all of whom have jobs — Nof in a ceramics factory, Yahya in construction and Adam as a hotel cook — follow events in Darfur through their phones, Facebook, the BBC and Al Jazeera.
Back home, the violence has not let up.
Yahya, whose father and two maternal uncles were killed by the Janjaweed, lost childhood friends in a new attack in Darfur just a few weeks before speaking to The Times of Israel in May.
In December, Baraka’s brother Sayid Ismael, who had received US citizenship after being resettled there as a refugee, traveled to Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, to visit family. On January 16, he was murdered inside his own home by militiamen.
But for many, Israel is no longer seen as the refuge they once thought it to be.
“I want to see my mom,” said Nof when asked where he would like to be in 10 years. “I want a good life. If my country is safe I wouldn’t spend a minute more here because I see no future.”