Israel to get tough on Sudanese refugees

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Special to The Times

The war in his native Sudan had been hellish, his years as a refugee in Egypt not much better. So with his 2-year-old daughter in his arms and his pregnant wife at his side, William followed Bedouin smugglers on a perilous trek across the desert border into Israel.

Three weeks after crossing illegally, the family found temporary refuge at this communal farm overlooking the verdant Carmel mountains. For the first time in years, William thought, life will be better.

“I know there are human rights in Israel and other countries,” said the 30-year-old asylum seeker, who asked that his full name not be used to protect family members in his war-torn homeland. “In Egypt, there aren’t any.”


But now William and hundreds like him may be forced to return to Egypt. In a move that some human rights groups warn could endanger lives, Israel is cracking down on a recent influx of illegal immigrants over its 140-mile border with Egypt.

About 2,800 people, mostly from Africa, have crossed illegally into Israel in recent years, officials say. Sudanese make up the largest group, which consists of 1,160 asylum seekers who endured months or years of harassment in Egypt. Large numbers of Sudanese began reaching Israel in May as word spread of job opportunities.

Of the Sudanese, 220 are Muslims from the Darfur region, which has been gripped by war since early 2003. The rest, including William and his family, come from the predominantly animist and Christian southern Sudan, where a 21-year conflict that ended in 2005 left about 2 million dead and twice as many displaced.

Israel’s army has been ordered to turn back anyone attempting to cross the border illegally and to deport to Egypt most of the border jumpers already in the country.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said this week that the deportations would begin as soon as a full list of the refugees was compiled.

The government did not say whether newcomers would be able to apply for asylum, although it agreed to consider allowing a small portion of the refugees from Darfur to stay and receive public assistance.


Israeli officials said they had received assurances from Egypt regarding the safety of those being sent back. But human rights organizations said such a pledge does not guarantee that Egypt won’t send the refugees back to Sudan, where their lives are at risk.

Some legal experts said the government’s plan to turn back people at the border without examining their claims went against customary international law. They also warned that those sent back could face imprisonment and torture in Egypt for leaving illegally.

Anat Ben-Dor heads a legal aid clinic at Tel Aviv University that has helped win the release of about 300 Sudanese refugees from Israeli prisons in the last year. The asylum seekers have little confidence in what Egypt can offer them, she said.

“They don’t get work rights, their children don’t get into schools, there are no medical services,” she said. “It’s like being in an eternal limbo and being subject to very racist treatment because of the color of their skin.”

The Israeli government views most of the newcomers as economic migrants. But critics of the clampdown say they expect more understanding from a state whose creation was driven by the historic persecution of Jews that culminated in the Holocaust. Some have pointed out that Olmert’s parents took refuge in China in the early 1900s to escape persecution in Russia.

The trickle of Sudanese into Israel began to accelerate after riot police broke up a sit-in they staged in Cairo in 2005 to press demands for asylum.


Among the protesters was William, who barely survived a head injury inflicted by police in the crackdown, which ended with at least 27 Sudanese dead. That’s when he resolved to leave.

William told his story in halting English, sitting in the shade of pine trees at the kibbutz on a hot afternoon.

In Sudan, William said, he eluded kidnapping by a militia group that looted his southern village, killed his father and separated him from the rest of his family. From there he fled to the capital, Khartoum, and spent years in a refugee camp before escaping to Egypt in 2000, where he married.

Life in Egypt was less violent but still intolerable, William said. The $50 he earned monthly from a 12-hour-a-day job cleaning a restaurant wasn’t enough to sustain his family. There was no money to pay for his pregnant wife’s medical care. He said he was harassed by Egyptians in what he attributes to racism against darker-skinned Sudanese.

Last month, he and his family tired of waiting for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to resettle them abroad. They took a bus to the Sinai desert, where he paid smugglers to guide them into Israel.

The journey was risky. Some Sudanese refugees here said Egyptian soldiers shot at them to try to prevent them from leaving the country illegally. Some who were caught said the soldiers beat them.


Until May, an average of seven Sudanese immigrants arrived in Israel a month, according to Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli volunteer group. Authorities would jail the men and turn the women and children over to volunteer groups for shelter while their asylum claims were considered.

But in May and June, more than 700 Sudanese arrived. With no room in prisons, immigration authorities stopped holding the men and began depositing them and their families on the streets of Beersheba in southern Israel.

Local volunteers, mostly university students, helped find them places to stay. Some have been taken in by communal farms or put up at hotels. The lucky ones have found work at Red Sea resort hotels in Eilat.

On the grassy poolside of the Desert Inn in Beersheba, where dozens of Sudanese families have found temporary sanctuary, Anthony said he was afraid of being forced to return to Egypt.

“They don’t like us -- some of us have been beaten,” said the father of four, who serves as the unofficial spokesman for the group at the hotel. He declined to give his last name.

“Before we reach Egypt, let the Israeli government know this: If they take us away, we will try to come back, even if we die at the border,” he said.