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Immigration to Israel: Sudanese Refugees in Israel

For many years, the Arabs in Sudan lived peacefully alongside the native Africans in the region. After a severe drought in the 1980s, the situation deteriorated and African villages were regularly attacked by government forces. In 2003, as a response to the attacks, the Sudan Liberation Army, a rebel group consisting primarily of Africans from the Darfur region of Sudan, attacked government forces in Darfur. In retaliation, the central government in the capital city of Khartoum, armed and funded Arab militias called Janjaweed. They rampaged across the country, murdering native Muslim and Christian African men, women and children throughout Sudan. The militias raped women, burned villages, and terrorized all non-Arabs they encountered. The conflict began in 2003, and an estimated 480,000 people were killed, more than 3,200 African villages were destroyed, and more than 2.5 million people were displaced. Nearly five million Sudanese became dependent on humanitarian aid.

In July 2007, the UN Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 1769 which called for a 26,000 member peace-keeping force consisting of 20,000 troops and 6,000 civilian personnel. A year later however, only 9,000 of the authorized 20,000 troops were on the ground in Darfur. Many Sudanese refguees have fled to the Republic of Chad and Egypt. As of December 2013, nearly 275,000 had escaped to Chad and about 18,000 to Egypt, where they continue to suffer from a lack of basic rights and live on the verge of starvation under constant threat of harassment, persecution, and violence from authorities and locals alike.

Sudanese refugees began fleeing Egypt for Israel in 2005. They crossed the Sinai on a rigorous and harrowing journey, led by Bedouins who often charged $100-$300 for their guide services. As refugees first began crossing the porous border between Egypt and Israel, Egyptian border police were ordered to shoot anyone they saw and diligently followed their command. Those who managed to enter Israel alive were often wounded or starving. The Israeli military treated those in need of food and medican attention and then detained the refugees.

According to a 1954 Israeli law, all infiltrators from enemy states, such as Sudan which harbors terrorists, must be detained until their refugee status can be confirmed. Israel took in less than 2,000 refugees in 2007. Many of these refugees were caught in Be’er Sheva crossing the border. They spent time in prison or detention centers, such as the Ketziot Prison complex which was set up to hold 2,000 refugees in small trailers of the sort used in construction sites. Supporters of the detention camp argued it was necessary to enable authorities to sort all those caught infiltrating Israel through its border with Egypt. Non-refugee infiltrators include an estimated 1,500 illegal immigrants from Africa who came in search of work and hundreds of Eastern European trafficked in for sex trade industry.

Many refugees have been sent back to Egypt, where they faced further detention or deportation back to Sudan. Critics claimed Israel violated international law and the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which prohibits the expulsion of refugees without assessing their claims for asylum. The UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency’s responsibility is to find a permanent solution for the refugee problem. Israel argued that its small country could not take in more refugees and UNHCR should play a more active role in helping the refugees.

Those who were released from detention and allowed to stay in Israel met a harsh reality. Jobs were hard to come by and living conditions squalor. The Hotline for Migrant Workers says 17,000 African refugees have entered Israel via the Egyptian border since 2006, including 5,000 Sudanese migrants, 3,000 of whom were Christians who settled in Israel. Currently about 1,200 Darfuris live in Israel with about 500 in Tel Aviv and the rest primarily working on kibbutzim in the South and in hotels in Eilat. Those who found lives in on kibbutzim and in hotels in Eilat find themselves happier than those in Tel Aviv, where jobs are scarce and living conditions harsh. A rundown bomb shelter across from the central bus station in Tel Aviv has become a home for many Africans until they can find work or proper housing. After granting refugees asylum, the Israeli government’s efforts to help the integration of Africans into society was minimal. Instead, Israeli charities, churches, synagogues, legal and medial aid organizations, and the Tel Aviv municipality lend a large hand.

Several organizations help aid refugees in Israel. B’nai Darfur (Sons of Darfur) started in 2007 as a non-profit humanitarian organization that provides social opportunities, health care, education, and cultural programs. They aim to empower the Darfurian, as well as the Sudanese and Eritrean, communities and provide economic aid. The organization was established by some of the first Darfurian refugees to arrive in Israel and began taking roots while its founders were still detained in prison. The organization helps refugees find jobs, learn Hebrew and English, and attend school while and raises awareness of the genocide occurring in Darfur.

In addition to absorbing refugees, Israel has sent financial aid for refugees in other countries. By November 2, 2006, the Israeli Government and American Jewish organizations had contributed a combined total of $75,000 USD to assist Sudanese refugees who had settled in UNHCR camps in Chad. In the US, the Jewish American community has been one of the most outspoken and active groups in fighting genocide and lobbying the nation’s leaders. For example, American Jewish World Service and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum founded the Save Darfur Coalition, the biggest raiser of private funds for Darfur in the United States.

In January 2014, over 20,000 African migrants and asylum-seekers marched in Tel Aviv in an effort to garner the support of Western governments to denounce Israel's detention policy toward migrants who enter the country illegally, to be recognized as refugees and persuade Israel to stop arresting them and free those currently imprisoned. Protesters marched to the embassies of France, Britain, Italy, Canada and Germany with letters appealing to these countries' support. The protests follow a December law that Israel's parliament approved, which enables authorities to detain migrants without valid visas indefinitely. Since then, more than 300 migrants were arrested and others summons to be detained. Since 2006, approximately 60,000 migrants - mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have crossed into Israel through the then-porous border with Egypt. After the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, Israel began constructing a border fence along its border with Sinai. The fence has dramatically reduced if not completely halted illegal immigration, as of the summer of 2013, and also serves as a counterterrorism blocade.

Sources: “African migrants protest Israel detention law,” Al Jazeera, (January 6, 2014).
B’nai Darfur.
Larry Derfner, “African Refugees Pose Dilemma for Israel,” US News, (February 28, 2008).
Gavriel Fiske, “Netanyahu: Egypt border fence halted flow of migrants,” Times of Israel, (July 7, 2013).
Yuval Goren, “Ten Refugees Leave Israel to Return Home,” Haaretz, (April 20, 2009).
Linda Gradstein“Israel Weary of Sudanese Refugees,” NPR, (May 24, 2009).
Ellen Knickmeyer, “Israel to Block Refugees From Darfur,” The Washington Post, (August 20, 2007).
Ellen Knickmeyer, “A Crisis of Conscience Over Refugees in Israel.” The Washington Post, (September 25, 2007).
Rory McCarthy, “Unholy Sanctuary,” Guardian, (May 3, 2008).
“Press Release: Israel Contributes Humanitarian Assistance to Sudanese Refugees,” European Parliament, (November 2, 2006).
Ruth Sinai, “Sudanese Refugees Sue Israel Over Abuse by Security Forces,” Haaretz, (July 3, 2007).
Carolynne Wheeler, “Israel Detains Darfur Refugees in Desert ‘Prison’.” Telegraph, (June 15, 2007).
The Washington Times, (May 10, 2009).
Genocide in Darfur, EduBirdie, (December 9, 2020).
World Without Genocide (2013).