Sudan’s government has agreed to negotiate the repatriation of large numbers of migrants who illegally entered Israel, following the announced normalization between the countries.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at Sunday’s cabinet meeting that “an Israeli delegation and its Sudanese counterparts will meet in Sudan soon, to discuss cooperation in many fields, including immigration, which we are discussing.”
The Sudanese Foreign Ministry said on Sunday that the countries will discuss agreements on trade and migration issues.
Some Israeli cabinet ministers said Sudan has already agreed to accept migrants.
“I understand that they have already agreed on a pilot program, in the very near future, for several hundred” Sudanese to be repatriated, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Ynet TV. “And I think that, after the hundreds… several thousand will leave.”
Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis told KAN that the repatriation plan “is a very important part of the normalization between the countries.”
Army Radio reported that Netanyahu plans to appoint a professional committee to draw up plans to repatriate Sudanese migrants and asylum-seekers.
The Prime Minister’s Office would not confirm or deny the report.
As of Saturday night, a spokesman for Interior Minister Arye Deri said it was as yet unknown whether there would be an agreement with Sudan to deport migrants, and another Israeli official said “the issue is still ahead of us.”
The joint statement between Israel, Sudan and the US announcing the establishment of ties, released on Friday, mentions that the delegations from Jerusalem and Khartoum will meet in the coming weeks, and “migration issues” are among the topics they will discuss.
Sudanese nationals could not be deported previously, due to humanitarian conditions and because Israel did not have diplomatic ties with Sudan. Thousands of Sudanese migrants entered Israel in the past 15 years, and about 6,200 remain.
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, the leading Israeli NGO on African migrants’ issues, says that around 4,400 of them are from the Darfur, Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile regions, where there are continuing conflicts; about 2,000 migrants from those regions were granted “humanitarian status” by the Interior Ministry.
Akunis said the 6,000 number, which is cited by NGOs on both sides of the debate on migrants, is “not accurate and not even close,” arguing that there are tens of thousands living in south Tel Aviv, Eilat and Haifa.
The regional cooperation minister said that migrants from Darfur can be deported, because “the situation is completely different from what it was when the Supreme Court made decisions [on the matter].”
Sudan’s current, transitional government came after long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir was toppled last year, and it seeks to shift the country toward democracy.
The Israeli Immigration Policy Center, which calls to deport migrants, says over 5,000 Sudanese migrants voluntarily have returned to Sudan over the years, including some from Darfur. Many countries, including Australia, Belgium, the UK, France and Italy have repatriated migrants from Darfur in recent years, the center reported, pointing out that the conflict in the north-western region of Sudan is currently at a much lower intensity than it had been.
“Therefore, the agreement paves the way to return the vast majority of the over 6,000 Sudanese nationals currently staying in Israel… even those who received a temporary humanitarian status in the past, with the exception of especially prominent dissidents – and we hope the government will act to promote this return as soon as possible,” Israeli Immigration Policy Center director Yonatan Yakobovich argued.
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, however, posited that the vast majority of African migrants will not necessarily be sent back to their countries of origin despite the Sudan-Israel normalization process.
In other words, the NGO said that since there is still a civil war and war crimes going on in the Darfur, Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile regions, the group of 4,400 could not be sent back unless the war ends and their future safety would be ensured. In addition, the Hotline said that 5,119 Sudan-region migrants have filed requests to be recognized as refugees.
The Hotline said that these requests must be individually reviewed and processed and that the group as a whole cannot be simply ignored and sent back to Sudan.
Moreover, the Hotline said that the state has previously committed to the High Court of Justice that it would not send back any migrants to the Sudan region if there was any kind of danger due to instability and war.
In an interview on Thursday with The Jerusalem Post, the Hotline did say that it would not necessarily oppose the return of migrants to Sudan across the board as it does with Eritrea.
Rather, the NGO said that its position was that requests for refugee recognition must be properly reviewed and decided on an individual basis.
Further, the NGO admitted that there was a segment of Sudanese migrants in Israel who would be ready to return to Sudan voluntarily if the normalization deal works out and permits them to return.
On Friday, Sudan became the third Arab state in less than three months to announce ties with Israel.
Hours earlier, the US officially removed Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, after it paid $335 million in compensation for American victims of terror and their families.
Prominent political factions in Sudan have rejected the accord. Some Sudanese officials have said it should be approved by a transitional parliament that has yet to be formed over a year after mass unrest ousted the Islamist autocrat al-Bashir. It remains unclear when the assembly will be constituted as part of the transition towards free elections.
In Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said Sudan “had been an enemy state until a few years ago, a state that cooperated with Iran in smuggling very dangerous weapons to Hamas for use against Israel.
“This change comes as a result of our strong stand against Iran; as a result of our taking action against its activities and attempt to smuggle through Sudan; and, of course, as a result of the internal changes that took place in Sudan, which we welcome,” he stated.
Netanyahu later announced that Israel will send $5 million worth of wheat to Sudan, in a first act of friendship between the countries.
“We are looking forward to a warm peace and are sending $5 million worth of wheat immediately to our new friends in Sudan,” Netanyahu tweeted. “Israel will be working closely with the USA to assist Sudan’s transition.”
Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen told a Sudanese newspaper that he plans to visit Khartoum soon with a business delegation and experts in agriculture and water technologies. Cohen’s office confirmed the report, saying that he is in early stages of planning the mission.
An October 15 report by the Intelligence Ministry projected deals in agriculture and desalination with Sudan. It also called for cooperation to prevent Sudanese soil being used by anti-Israel forces like Iran or Hamas.