By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 20, 2007
CAIRO, Aug. 19 -- Israel closed the door Sunday on a surge of asylum-seekers from Sudan's Darfur region and from other African countries, the largest influx of non-Jewish refugees in the modern history of the Jewish state.
Authorities announced that they had expelled 48 of more than 2,000 African refugees who have entered illegally from Egypt in recent weeks. Officials said they would allow 500 Darfurians among them to remain, but would deport everyone else back to Egypt and accept no more illegal migrants from Darfur or other places.
The announcement, raising new concerns over the refugees' safety, heightened a debate in Israel over what responsibilities a nation created by survivors of genocide in Europe bore toward people fleeing mass killing in Africa.
It was unclear Sunday whether Egypt would in turn deport the refugees to their countries of origin. Israel had received assurances from Egypt that it would not send Sudanese refugees to their troubled home country, an Israeli official said by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Egyptian police told the Associated Press, however, that Egypt would send the Sudanese back to Sudan. An Egyptian Foreign Ministry official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel had sought no assurances about the future of the refugees. "Israel just said, 'Please take them,' " the Egyptian official said.
Refugees from Darfur are escaping what President Bush and others have called genocide by government-allied Arab militias against ethnic African villagers. In addition, Sudan and Israel officially are enemies, and Sudan's government has said any refugees sent back from Israel would be considered as having dealt with an enemy state and treated accordingly.
"If deported to Sudan, they will be tried for treason," said Madhal Aguer, a private aid worker in Cairo for refugees from a separate conflict in southern Sudan; a long-running civil war between the north and south killed up to 1 million people before a peace deal in 2005.
Since the 1990s, more than 2 million Sudanese have fled across their country's northern border into Egypt. Although Egypt has generally allowed them to stay, they have faced discrimination and sometimes deadly abuse, and say they find few jobs and little help from refugee agencies.
In 2005, Egyptian police used clubs and water cannons to break up a sit-in by Sudanese refugees near the U.N. refugee agency. At least 20 were trampled to death or otherwise killed in the resulting melee, according to health officials and rights workers.
This spring, thousands of the refugees started moving north to sneak into Israel, in the belief it would allow them safety, freedom and jobs, the refugees said. Israel, which normally gets 700 to 800 asylum-seekers a year, received 2,300 in the first six months of the year, said Anat Ben-Dor, a lawyer at a Tel Aviv University legal clinic who represents some of the African refugees.
Nearly all of the new asylum-seekers are from Africa, including about 1,600 from Sudan, according to Israeli figures. Israel has confined some of the arrivals in prisons or in tent cities and trailer camps in the desert, and others in remote kibbutzim.
The Africans have generally crossed into Israel over Egypt's Sinai border. Most sell all their goods to pay the $300 to $400 fee demanded by local Bedouin guides. The danger is high; since July, Egyptian authorities have fatally shot at least one refugee, a 28-year-old Darfurian woman, at the border, and shot and wounded several others.
Egypt has sent before military tribunals about 50 refugees caught while trying to cross the border, sentencing them to up to a year in prison. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry official said Sunday that Egypt was holding the refugees expelled this weekend for questioning, but did not intend to try them.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said earlier this summer that Darfurians among the refugees would be absorbed into Israeli society. Government spokesman David Baker said Sunday that Israel would give some members of that group special treatment. "Israel is certainly aware of the unique and dire situation of these refugees from Darfur, and it is based on our humanitarian concerns that we've decided to take in 500 Darfur refugees," Baker said by telephone.
"Regarding those who in the future" are "coming from anywhere . . . they will be sent back to Egypt. That would include anyone coming from Darfur," Baker said.
Israel sent back the first group of 48 African refugees through the Karm Abu Salim, or Kerem Shalom, crossing with Egypt late Saturday night, Egyptian and Israeli officials confirmed. Egypt said the deportees included refugees from Darfur.
Israel apparently expelled them without hearings, in contravention of a refugee accord it has signed that requires countries to determine whether deportation will subject asylum-seekers to mistreatment, said Ben-Dor, the Israeli refugee lawyer.
More than half the members of Israel's parliament, including opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, signed a petition earlier this month urging Israel not to send the refugees back to Egypt.
"The refugees need protection and sanctuary and the Jewish people's history as well as democratic and humanitarian values make it a moral imperative for us to give them that shelter," the Israeli lawmakers wrote.
"The expulsion is an inhumane act that violates international law," said lawmaker Dov Khenin of the Hadash party, according to the Haaretz newspaper Web site.
Israel's previous largest influx of non-Jewish refugees came in the late 1970s, when nearly 400 Vietnamese boat people arrived legally under U.N. auspices. This summer's influx was far larger, Ben-Dor noted.
Special correspondent Nora Younis contributed to this report.