The planned deportation of South Sudanese migrants in Israel was upheld by an Israeli court on Thursday, though government pledges of wider crackdowns on African migrants remained in question.
Rejecting a petition by human rights groups that had delayed the Interior Ministry’s April 1 deportation order, Jerusalem District Court ruled the state was not obligated to extend de facto asylum to the estimated 1,500 migrants from South Sudan.
The petitioners had not proven that deportees would face “risk to life or exposure to serious damage”, the court said, finding in favor of assessments by Israeli diplomats in South Sudan, which declared independence last year after decades of fighting with northern neighbor Sudan.
The bulk of some 60,000 Africans who have crossed into Israel through its porous desert border with Egypt are from Sudan, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation that does not recognize the Jewish state, and from war-ravaged Eritrea.
The rightist government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees in the migrants a big economic and demographic threat to Israel’s already ethnically strained population of 7.8 million.
But while Israel says the vast majority of them came illegally to work, humanitarian agencies argue many of the Africans should be considered as refugees with asylum rights.
William Tall, Israel representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the Jerusalem court’s support for the Interior Ministry’s removal of “collective protection” status for the South Sudanese appeared to be in line with the formal end of their country’s war with Sudan.
“We have been assured by the government that they (South Sudanese) still enjoy the individual opportunity to apply for asylum,” Tall told Reuters, nothing that continued territorial disputes between Khartoum and Juba may still justify refugee claims.
While the Jerusalem court case was heard, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said he had ordered immigration inspectors to start detaining the South Sudanese and prepare their deportation.
Israel Radio quoted Yishai, who heads a party runs by rabbis in Netanyahu’s coalition, as saying he hoped Thursday’s ruling would be “the first in a series of measures that would allow for the deportation of all citizens of Eritrea and north Sudan.”
But an official briefed on Israel’s planning said the government was “in no position to deport all of these people. Eritrea and Sudan are completely different situations.”
About 100 people gathered on Tuesday in downtown Jerusalem to protest an attack on the previous day on a building which housed more than 50 foreign workers.
The arson attack was one of the most violent ones seen against African migrants in the past month.
Four African migrants were taken to an Israeli hospital with burns and treated for smoke inhalation on Monday after the deadly arson attempt on the Jerusalem building in which they were living, police said.
The incident, which police described as “very serious,” took place in an old two-story building in a poor neighborhood near the city’s Mahane Yehuda market, just after 3:00 am (0000 GMT).
Ten of the building’s residents also attended the Jerusalem protest. They said they were heartened to see Israelis who did not support the attack, reported the Jerusalem Post.
“I won’t say all of Israel is not good, it was just one person who made the fire,” 22-year-old Alula from Ethiopia told the Post. “They say the same thing about Africans, there’s one person who drinks a lot because he can’t work and lives outside and they see everyone as bad.”
Alula’s hand was injured in the fire, forcing him to quit his job as a busboy at a restaurant. He doesn’t know how he’ll work for the next month. Additionally, he lost his salary from the last month during the fire, the daily reported.
The paper also said that residents had no food and no way to cook, adding that an Eritrean man named Yakeub had untreated burns on his hands and no money to pay for a doctor. “I used Colgate toothpaste to keep it clean,” he said.
Police said the fire was started in a narrow entrance corridor which led to several apartments inside the building, home to 18 African migrants. On the external walls of the building, someone had sprayed Hebrew-language graffiti reading: “Get out of the neighborhood.”