Activists call it ironic: While some Sudanese refugees are imprisoned by the Israeli government as citizens of an enemy nation, others crossing into Israel are being abandoned on the street.
No one knows or considers who they are.
The practice in the past two years has been to arrest and detain Darfur refugees and other Africans who have fled to Israel seeking safe shelter or work on the grounds that some could be terrorists. A growing number are being released with little or no security checks.
“Some of the Sudanese have been in jail for a year already while the government says they are very dangerous and therefore cannot be released,” said Sigal Rozen, public coordinator for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, which has led efforts to help those from Sudan and elsewhere. “The same state throws people to the street, where no one knows who they are.”
Illustrating that point, activists said, several families that made the journey from Egypt to Israel in early May — including some with babies and young children — were abandoned on the streets of Beersheba after army patrols that found them along the border tried unsuccessfully to transfer them to police custody, activists said.
Police said they had run out of room either in shelters or the prisons where such arrivals have been held for the past two years, and told the soldiers they could no longer accept them.
The Israeli police, however, denied they have turned away or released anyone.
Activists on the ground said they saw proof otherwise.
“It was like the St. Louis in Beersheba,” said Eytan Schwartz, an activist for refugees from Darfur, referring to a ship of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis that no country wanted and which was sent back to Europe.
“There were 37 Sudanese refugees in a bus driving around from place to place; the army sent them to the police and the police sent them back to the army. Finally they landed in Beersheba and no one wanted them. Everyone refused to take in the refugees,” he said.
Ultimately a shelter was found for the night, and soldiers helped care for them. The next day a hotel in Eilat decided to give them work and brought them to the South to start their new jobs. Eilat increasingly has become an absorption site of sorts for the Sudanese.
Of some 300 Sudanese who have crossed into Israel through Egypt in recent years, about one-third say they fled genocide in Darfur, where government-backed militias have slaughtered or displaced hundreds of thousands of villagers.
The government has come under pressure to admit the Sudanese, given Israel’s history as a country founded in the shadow of the Holocaust.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Israel has considered accepting a some Sudanese refugees as part of a deal with other countries, which would take in some of those who already have made it to Israel.
The army and the police are in dispute over which body should be taking charge of the migrants once they cross into Israel.
“The authority has been passed over to the army for several months,” said Mickey Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police.
But the army spokesman’s office issued a statement saying that civil authorities have the tools to handle the refugees but were passing that responsibility to the police.
Reflecting the apparent confusion, the statement also said a number of refugees were on army bases.
“This is happening even though the army does not have the ability or training to take care of them,” the statement said.
Rozen said that at most the army asks recent arrivals for their name and place of origin.
“This is the thorough investigation they go through?” she asked.
Rozen said the problem has arisen partly because her organization has exhausted possibilities in placing the refugees. Shelters for women and children are full, and many of the kibbutzim and moshavim that volunteered to take in refugees as workers have refused to pay them minimum wage.
She said Livni’s talk of a possible deal was encouraging, but bemoaned the lack of a clear government policy on how to handle the Sudanese. In the meantime, more come each week and find themselves on the streets.