April 5, 2007
Israel Policy of Imprisoning Refugees Being Challenged
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"The Israelis are considering a humanitarian solution of absorbing some of the refugees," the official said. "It is a case of burden sharing with other nations, including the U.S."
The United Nations warns against short-term fixes.
"Quite frankly, if by some extraordinary measure the entire current group were resettled to a third country, it would only be a temporary solution," said Astrid van Genderen Stort of UNHCR in Geneva. "Such a measure would certainly encourage further illegal movements from Egypt to Israel and a hazardous journey for asylum seekers and refugees."
Israel and UNHCR would like to discourage further infiltrations by returning Sudanese refugees to Egypt. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has discussed the issue with her Egyptian counterpart. And Eliyahu Aharoni, deputy director of the Immigration Police, testified before the Knesset in late December that "the natural and correct solution is a return to Egypt."
The Israeli government is reluctant to say anything publicly against Egypt's handling of the refugees, since its best-case solution involves a new level of cooperation with the Egyptian government. But the government's position, according to Mark Regev, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, is that "Israel does not have a common border with Sudan, and we are not the first point of refuge."
According to the U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be identified, the Israelis "want to work out a way to return future arrivals to Egypt to discourage them from coming."
Stort confirmed that UNHCR "is trying to facilitate contacts between the two countries to ensure safe return to Egypt as the first country of asylum, with the assurance that no one will be forcibly returned to Sudan."
The refugees and activists on their behalf take issue with this approach.
"We should not talk about Egypt as a 'first country of asylum,'" Ben Dor said, "because Egypt doesn't even have an asylum system of its own and UNHCR has advised European governments not to consider countries like that to be safe for returns."
UNHCR has asked Egypt repeatedly to assume responsibility for refugees, even to issue work permits for them, but the Egyptians have refused.
"Egypt is under no obligation to take the Sudanese back," Ben Dor said. "It has been refusing since the end of 2004. Return to Egypt is a dangerous fantasy that distracts from finding a real solution."
At the same time, the Israeli government doesn't have much faith that UNHCR will be able to resolve the situation.
According to an internal Justice Ministry memo obtained by JTA, the attorney general convened a meeting of the army, intelligence and other government agencies to develop a strategy to deal with the Sudanese refugees, including "hot returns" or the immediate return to Egypt of anyone who slips illegally across the border.
"There is no impediment to returning an infiltrator to Egypt, and such a measure requires neither a court order nor any other proceedings," according to a summary of the meeting.
The minutes further reveal the government's attitude toward UNHCR: "They are unable to provide a feasible solution."
For Ahmed, a Sudanese refugee who has been in Israeli prisons since he slipped under the border in late December with his wife and three children, his desire is clear.
"I would rather remain here forever than return to Sudan or to any Arab country," he declared.
JTA correspondent Ron Kampeas in Washington contributed to this report.
Yosef Israel Abramowitz is an award-winning journalist and founder of socialaction.com. Abramowitz, who moved with his family last year to Israel, blogs daily at peoplehood.org. JTA correspondent Dina Kraft in Israel contributed to this piece. The names of the refugees have been changed to protect them from reprisals against family members in Arab countries.
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