April 5, 2007
A Troubled Exodus
Israel torn over what to do with Sudanese refugees: Deport them or grant asylum?
(Page 3 - Previous Page)None of the Sudanese who have crossed into Israel in the past 18 months has been granted asylum or temporary refugee status, according to Michael Bavli, head of the UNHCR office in Israel.
This contrasts with the some 200 asylum seekers from many countries, including some Sudanese, who had been granted permanent asylum in Israel between 1985 and 2005. An additional 700 non-Sudanese refugees were granted temporary asylum during that time.
With each new arrival stretching an embryonic asylum system of the state, the issue of the Sudanese has been coming to a boil.
A Knesset lobby headed by Labor Party member Avishai Braverman and Likud member Gilad Erdan was formed last November to "push for the release of all the prisoners who have sought asylum in Israel," lobby spokesman Yehuda Minkovitz said.
Its focus is having the prisoners released and then advocating for at least some being granted permanent asylum status in Israel.
"I am ashamed as a person and as a Jew," Braverman told JTA, referring to the practice of imprisoning asylum seekers. "We of all people have to know how to behave."
The Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers held a Christmas Day hearing on the issue under the chairmanship of Ron Cohen of Meretz.
Two days later, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni sat across the table from Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and asked her counterpart if Egypt would consider taking back some of the refugees, according to a senior Foreign Ministry source who asked not to be identified.
Livni wanted to know if Egypt would consider a "hot return" policy, which would mean an immediate return into the Sinai of the refugees at the time they are picked up by the IDF on the border. She also explored the possibility of an organized return to Egypt of all the Sudanese refugees who carry U.N. blue cards, meaning they were recognized as refugees in Cairo and are eligible for third-country resettlement from Egypt.
The Egyptian Embassy declined to comment on the exchange.
Just as the Egyptian foreign minister was returning to Cairo with the Israeli request to help them facilitate hot returns, Ahmed and Fatima packed two small bags and quietly left the Egyptian capital, beginning their journey to cross illegally into Israel.
Three days later, when Fatima arrived at the shelter in Israel's north, she was greeted with media reports that Israel was considering deporting her and her family back to Egypt. She quickly dictated an impassioned letter in Arabic, which was translated into Hebrew by a Druze linguist, and it was sent to the Knesset lobby, which sent a direct appeal to Defense Minister Amir Peretz.
Peretz's office has not responded to requests for an interview.
In her letter, Fatima briefly recounted her family's flight.
"I beg you not to let them send us away from here.... I know that if they send us back to Egypt, we'll go to prison and perhaps never get out," she wrote. "We could also be sent to the Sudanese Embassy and from there back to Sudan, and that will be the end of us. We'll die like all the others who have died there."
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.