April 5, 2007
A Troubled Exodus
Israel torn over what to do with Sudanese refugees: Deport them or grant asylum?
Avoid the Egyptian military patrols, they were warned by their Bedouin smugglers, whom they paid with money borrowed from Sudanese friends.
"If they catch you, you could be shot or deported back to Sudan," the Bedouins said.
The 12-hour trip from Cairo was the last leg of a multiyear journey stretching from the violence of Darfur to Sudan's dangerous capital of Khartoum to the teeming streets of Cairo. Ahmed had been imprisoned in each city.
Israel was their last hope for what Fatima calls "a normal life" without the "fear of being sent back to Sudan."
Two hours after dusting the sand off their dark clothing, dirtied while crawling under two security fences, their 5-month-old baby's cry pierced the silence of the frigid Negev air. The response was an Israeli military spotlight.
"Do you know where you are?" the soldiers called out in Arabic.
"Yes," they answered.
"Why are you here?"
"Because we were mistreated in Egypt."
"Who are you?"
"We are Sudanese."
Ahmed lowered his 2-year-old son from his shoulders and held up his Sudanese passport, as well as the worn yellow card given to asylum seekers by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The card had been obtained in Cairo and saved them from being deported back to Sudan, as the Egyptian police had threatened.
The Israeli soldiers gave the children their green military coats.
"We were afraid of the Egyptian army, not of the Israeli army," Ahmed recalled later.
In an often-reluctant ritual that has been repeated almost weekly for two years, involving Sudanese sneaking into Israel, Israel Defense Forces patrols gathered up the tired refugee family, placed them in an ambulance and handed them over to the Border Police. The Border Police sent Ahmed to Ketziot Prison for violating the Infiltration Law, a 1954 statute enacted against enemy combatants.
If the experience of others before him is any precedent, Ahmed could remain incarcerated for at least a year, until Israel figures out what to do with him and the more than 120 other imprisoned Sudanese.
Fatima and the children were sent to a battered women's shelter in the western Galilee that has largely been taken over by Sudanese refugees whose husbands are in prison.
The failure of the United Nations to cope with the doubling of refugee applications in the past decade or to intervene to prevent the genocide in Darfur has had ripple effects throughout the world. That now includes Israel and the Jewish world.
Faced with genocidal threats from Iran and terrorist groups, a legacy of the Holocaust and even echoes of the Exodus 3,700 years ago, Israel is torn between its commitment to universal humanitarian concerns and its own security interests.
A four-month investigation into the plight of the refugees and the Israeli government's handling of the situation found a system that even the top Israeli official adjudicating each of the cases has said often violates Israeli and international law.
After two years of legal challenges and growing Israeli media attention, the issue now is coming to a critical juncture.
The practice of arresting and indefinitely detaining Sudanese asylum seekers on security grounds is being tested in the courts, even as Israeli Border Police are showing signs of resisting the orders to arrest and detain the refugees crossing the borders.
Major international human rights figures have embraced the cause, and a handful of Knesset members and activists in Israel are pressing for a resolution of the crisis. Some of these activists, in turn, have strong ties to the American Jewish community, which has embraced the cause of Darfur as a top humanitarian priority. Some 200,000 to 400,000 people have been killed in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Another 2.5 million have been displaced.
Israel's quandary is a difficult one.
"Sudanese refugees are right now considered enemy nationals since Sudan is an Islamic fundamentalist country," explained Anat Ben Dor, Israel's leading refugee rights lawyer, who has emerged as a top advocate for the Sudanese refugees. "Yet Israel is a signatory to the International Convention on Refugees, which guarantees humane treatment and a safe haven from genocide."
Ben Dor, 40, who directs the Tel Aviv University Law School Refugee Rights Clinic, in late February filed suit against the government for its alleged treatment of three refugees.
Israel helped author the convention in the aftermath of World War II. Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany were routinely refused safe haven because they, like the current Sudanese, were classified as enemy nationals.
Activists enjoyed a small victory on March 21, when Israel's Supreme Court gave the state 45 days to determine whether the detainees were getting a fair and proper judicial review.
"Bringing justice is the issue here," said Supreme Court Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, who is presiding over a three-judge panel hearing the case.
"This is very significant," said Ben Dor, who together with the Hotline for Migrant Workers, filed the appeal to the court, arguing that those Sudanese arrested and put in jail for illegally entering the country should not be charged as infiltrators of an enemy state.
The petition against Israel's defense and interior ministers argues that even though 150 Sudanese have been released into alternative detention, the lack of formal judicial review makes the detention illegal.
Under Israeli law, other nationals who sneak through the Sinai Desert into Israel are charged with the Law of Entry. In those cases, the government must review their cases every 30 days and justify their imprisonment. But since Sudanese are considered "enemy nationals," they are charged under the harsher Infiltration Law, which has no official review mechanism and by which detainees can be held indefinitely.
Irwin Cotler, Canada's former minister of justice and human rights attorney for such well-known dissidents as Natan Sharansky and Nelson Mandela, has joined with the Israel Bar Association in filing supporting documents on behalf of the Sudanese with the Israeli High Court.