April 5, 2007
A Troubled Exodus
Israel torn over what to do with Sudanese refugees: Deport them or grant asylum?
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"Israel should be more part of the international struggle against genocide in Darfur," Cotler said. "If Israel grants refugee status or temporary resident status to the Sudanese, it can be Israel's own modest contribution to speaking up against the genocide, rather than interning them and making the opposite statement."
Although the numbers are fluid, an estimated 300 Sudanese have arrived in Israel over the past two years. Of these, some 120 remain in prison; the rest are in alternative detention, meaning crisis centers, kibbutzim or moshavim, where many of them work and live but are not free to leave the premises. Another estimated dozen or so Sudanese men in the Sinai are partnered with Israeli women and have children but cannot enter Israel for fear of arrest.
Sigal Rozen, 39, co-founded the Hotline for Migrant Workers with a grant from the New Israel Fund. Her tiny fourth-floor offices next door to a Tel Aviv police station are a hot spot for undocumented workers of all colors and nationalities who come knocking for assistance. The organization takes them to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees offices to get protection papers, documents that verify their refugee status so that they can qualify for a temporary work visa.
"There are people from all over the world who come to Israel," Rozen said. "If a Turk and a Chinese come across the border with a Sudanese, only the Sudanese is imprisoned. That is discrimination."
Israeli government officials say the situation is a difficult one.
"The Israeli government is endeavoring to deal with this issue as humanely as possible," said Mark Regev, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "Jewish history has made us especially sensitive to genocide. No one is being sent back to the inferno in Darfur." At the same time, he said, "we have to take precautions" to minimize the security risk, given where the refugees come from.
In the March 21 court case, state attorneys argued that the system was working, and there was no need to change the legalities under which the Sudanese are being held.
Some officials, in private conversations and in Knesset testimony, contend that beyond the immediate security concerns about individual Sudanese, the greater fear is the ripple effect of even more refugees seeking asylum in the Jewish state.
The fault lines drawn around the refugee battle between those advocating deportation and those advocating granting asylum is "a paradox," as one high-ranking Jewish organizational official called it.
"Israel is deeply sensitive to the issue of genocide," the official said, "but it is also worried about a massive influx of Sudanese at its border."
The prevailing government preference is to deport the refugees back to Egypt -- if Egypt will guarantee it will not deport them back to Sudan.
"The natural and correct solution is a return to Egypt," Eliyahu Aharoni, deputy director of the Immigration Police, testified to the Knesset in late December. "Sudan is one of six nations that supports Islamic terror. All the security services say that there is a danger when it comes to the Sudanese. Detention or alternative detention is legitimate in a democratic country and also in the State of Israel."
Debate is being waged about how many Sudanese would seek refuge in Israel if the detainees are released from prison and accorded good treatment in the Jewish state.
"What we do here will determine if 3 million will come" from Egypt or will stay there, said Yossi Edelshtein, director of the Immigration Police enforcement unit.
The 3 million figure is often cited by Israeli policy makers, particularly in the security services. But others dispute those figures.
"Anyone who talks about millions of Sudanese coming to Israel is scare-mongering," said Michael Kagan, an American human rights lawyer who has worked in Israel and Egypt. "No one even knows that there are millions of Sudanese in Egypt; some estimate there are only a few hundred thousand.
"But in any case, we're not talking about all Sudanese. We're talking about refugees," he said. "The U.N. says there are only 15,000 Sudanese refugees in Egypt, and of these, how many are going to pay big money, risk their lives and risk arrest to go over the desert to Israel?"
As to the porous border with Egypt, it is not the Sudanese that Israel most worries about but terrorists like Muhammed Faisal Saksak. On Jan. 29, the 21-year-old Palestinian crossed the border about 12 miles north of the resort city of Eilat and blew himself up in a small bakery, killing three.
In either a slip of the tongue or a calculated leak to remind the Knesset of the potential security risks of too liberal an asylum policy, Aharoni of the Immigration Police revealed to legislators in his Knesset testimony that "it appears that one Sudanese refugee belonging to Al Qaeda was released."
Half a dozen ministries, including the prime minister's office, would not respond to queries about the link.
Daniel Ben-Zaken, director of Ketziot Prison, which is holding many of the detainees, told JTA: "We asked, and we received no information about anyone connected to anything like that."
In 2005, the security forces caught 5,600 people trying to infiltrate across the Egyptian-Israeli border, including drug and weapons smugglers, women destined for prostitution, foreign workers and refugees.
In 2006, 100 of those caught trying to infiltrate belonged to terrorist organizations, according to Israeli media reports. That same year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel saw an increase in its caseload, with 1,600 applying for refugee or asylum status, up from 1,000 in 2005. Most of the increase was from foreign workers who did not want to return to their native lands, often because of wars in the Congo, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast and other African countries.
The number of Sudanese seeking protection in Israel started to increase after Egyptian police killed 27 and injured several hundred Sudanese refugees protesting outside the UNHCR office in Cairo at the end of December 2005.