African asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility protest their comrades' expulsion from Israel
African asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility protest the expulsion from Israel of others, February 17, 2014.Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Seven years have elapsed since then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert granted temporary-resident status to 498 asylum seekers from Sudan’s Darfur region, based on a recommendation by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Over those years Israel’s stance on asylum seekers has changed radically. The state has hardened its heart and pared the Africans’ rights.

People defined as refugees by Olmert are now termed “infiltrators” or labor migrants by government agencies. Instead of granting them status that would let them work and find housing until the situation in Sudan improved, the state has put enormous pressure on them to return home.

The state has distinguished between Eritreans — the majority of African asylum seekers here — and like the Darfuris. Israel isn’t expelling the Eritreans who are at risk back home, but it says the only thing stopping the deportation of the Darfuris is the absence of diplomatic ties with Sudan.

“Citizens of the Republic of Sudan who infiltrated into Israel cannot be sent directly back to their country of origin at this time, but this does not stem from recognition of their country as a country in crisis,” the state argued in a reply to the High Court of Justice two weeks ago.

“The state’s abstention from returning these people directly to northern Sudan in recent years is a result of practical difficulties in doing so, given the lack of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Republic of Sudan and the absence of any communication with the authorities in that country.”

According to the Population and Immigration Authority,19 percent of “infiltrators” are Sudanese, most from Darfur. But they comprise 75 percent of the inmates at the Holot detention center in the south — more than 1,500 people.

This is no coincidence. The Holot center’s main purpose, as the state itself claims, is to encourage asylum seekers to leave Israel, or in the words of human rights organizations, “to break their spirits.”

The pressure seems to be working. Despite the dangers in their home country, thousands despaired last year. They boarded planes to countries from which they were flown back to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.

There, contact with them was lost. According to reports from Khartoum, many were interrogated by the authorities upon arrival at the airport. Israeli human-rights activists have learned of the imprisonment and torture of some returnees; others have been put under surveillance after being released.

Some have fled Sudan again. Many detainees at Holot say they would rather rot in an Israeli prison than return to Sudan under its current government. Many say returning to Sudan would be a death sentence.

The state is not responding to these reports or the view of Western countries, led by the United States and Britain, that it’s dangerous to send asylum seekers back to a country plagued by human-rights violations. Israel’s tougher position does not change.

For officials at the State Prosecutor’s Office and the Population and Immigration Authority, the view is that “these are labor migrants, not refugees.” The state isn’t rejecting asylum requests by Darfuris, it’s simply not reviewing them. Hundreds of Darfuris have filed for refugee status in Israel. Some did so a year or two ago.

As far as is known, no one has received a reply. The state prefers to ignore these requests and restrict the applicants’ movements, hoping they will simply leave Israel.