Israel seeks to oust Sudan refugees

The Baltimore Sun

KETZIOT, Israel -- Two weeks ago, Bedouin smugglers pointed Ria Daou toward a mountain in Egypt's vast Sinai desert and told her she would find Israel on the other side.

For Daou, driven by war from southern Sudan to a desperate life in Cairo's slums, the Jewish state glistened in the distance like gold. Israel, she believed, would provide her with a job, health care and, despite conflicts of its own, some sense of peace.

And, at first, it appeared that all the stories she had heard about Israel would come true. After she had trudged across the sand for eight hours, a patrol of Israeli border police picked her up.

"The first thing they did was give me water to drink," says Daou, smiling at the memory.

But her hopes for a new beginning appear to be over.

In an attempt to halt the increasing flow of illegal immigrants across its 135-mile border with Egypt, the Israeli government last week turned back about 50 Africans who crossed into Israel and announced that it would soon deport to Egypt more than 2,300 other Africans, mostly Sudanese like Daou, who have arrived in recent months.

Israel's tough new policy is sparking a soul-searching debate among Israelis and Jews worldwide who say the Jewish people's experience of the Holocaust and their own yearning for refuge to escape Nazi Germany make Israel morally obliged to offer assistance to African refugees.

Israel has agreed to absorb about 500 African refugees from Sudan's Darfur region, where fighting between Khartoum-backed militias and rebels has killed about 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million since 2003. The United States describes the atrocities there as genocide.

But under the new policy, Israel will stop all migrants -- even those from Darfur -- who attempt to enter the country, government officials say.

"They will be returned no matter where they come from," said David Baker, an Israeli government spokesman.

"What's happening is we are being flooded, literally by the thousands, and this is a small country," Baker added, "We understand the humanitarian need, but we feel that Israel should be one of many countries who should be extending a hand and absorbing the refugees."

A pair of letters to the editor in The Jerusalem Post last week captured the division among Jews on the issue.

"Are we Jews forgetting one of our deepest values, our biblical mandate to be our brother's keeper?" asked one writer from the United States.

But another writer from Jerusalem questioned how poor migrants from Sudan, a Muslim-dominated country with hostile relations with the Jewish state, could afford to pay smuggling fees of several hundred dollars to enter Israel.

"How do 'impoverished' refugees gain access to such huge sums of money? Could it possibly be coming from Arab governments seeking to weaken the 'Zionist enemy' by flooding Israel with non-Jews?" the writer asked.

The Israeli government has anguished for months over what to do about Africans slipping across Israel's porous border with Egypt.

During government debates over the issue, Avishai Braverman, a member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, argued that Israel should welcome them.

"All the time we are waving the Shoah" -- the Hebrew term for the Holocaust -- "we talk and talk that we've have been through so much. Once in a while we have to show an example, too. This is an opportunity to behave a bit morally and not preach to all the world all the time," he said.

Most of the Africans are economic migrants seeking work; many have found temporary employment in Israeli hotels and farms, filling jobs once held by Palestinian workers before Israeli drastically reduced Palestinian work permits during the past seven years of violence.

But as word spread that jobs were available, the number of migrants escalated sharply to about 50 per day, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"They found out they are received in Israel in a humane and nice way, and that, of course, creates a pull factor," says Michael Bavli, head of the UNHCR in Jerusalem, who estimated that there are 2 million Sudanese refugees in Egypt.

Afraid the country would be overrun by African migrants, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced last month that only some of the migrants would be allowed to stay before the government began deporting new arrivals last week.

Olmert's decision has been met with sharp criticism. Sixty-three members of the Knesset, including opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, signed a petition urging the government not to deport Sudanese refugees to Egypt. "The refugees need protection and sanctuary, and the Jewish people's history as well as democratic values make it a moral imperative for us to give them that shelter," the petition said.

An Israeli group called the Committee for Darfur Refugees has organized protests encouraging the government to increase the quota of Darfur refugees allowed to stay.

Many of the migrants fear they will face execution if returned to Sudan and may suffer abuse and mistreatment in Egypt. Human Rights Watch is asking Egyptian authorities to investigate allegations that Egyptian border guards killed three Sudanese migrants trying to cross into Israel last month.

"When we were in Egypt, we didn't get school; we didn't get health care. We didn't get houses to stay in. We are tired of Sudan and tired of Egypt also," says Daou, 38, a Christian whose husband was killed during southern Sudan's long civil war with Khartoum.

Daou paid her smugglers $700 -- all her savings from seven years of cleaning houses in Cairo -- to begin a new life in Israel. It's money she would be able to earn back in a matter of months if she found a job here, but if she returns to Cairo, it would take years to save that much again.

Daou is one of about 500 African migrants being housed in Ketziot, an Israeli prison several miles from the Egyptian border. Women and children live in a collection of trailers shaded from the scorching desert sun by a plastic green sheeting. Even though she is kept behind prison walls, Agnes Samson, 20, from southern Sudan, said her life was better now than in Cairo, where she worked as a housekeeper and nanny in Cairo's slums.

"I need to stay here because Cairo is dangerous," Samson said.

About 2,000 other Africans are being housed privately with charities, churches and kibbutzim, and by various aid agencies. The Jewish Agency for Israel, which has brought 3 million Jews from around the world to Israel, made space at one of its absorption centers near Sderot for 50 Africans who crossed into Israel last month.

Igal Pinto, education coordinator for the Jewish Agency, says Israel's decision to deport the African migrants is a mistake.

"Just put the Holocaust aside. I'm a strong man, and I have to help the weak ones," he said, "I'm concerned that if they return, we'll find out that they have been slaughtered. Israel's image is as an occupying power. We are helping Christians and Muslims. This will help Israel's image."

Pinto does not know how much longer the Africans in his care will be able to stay in Israel, but he is preparing them for a future in the Jewish state in any case. The Jewish Agency helped some of the men find work picking avocados, and the women and children have started studying Hebrew.

"Israel is good, and I want to stay here if I can," says Fatima Rahim, 27, a refugee from Darfur who crossed into Israel two weeks ago with her husband and two young children before being taken in by the Jewish Agency.

"I ran away, and now I don't want to run anymore," she said.

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