SDEROT, ISRAEL (JTA) – It’s early morning in the Negev desert, but there’s a flurry of activity along Israel’s dusty border with Egypt, where small groups of Sudanese plot their escape across the international boundary.
On one side lies peril and poverty –crowded refugee camps, scarce jobs and overzealous Egyptian soldiers ready to open fire on anyone trying to flee to Israel. In the last few days alone, nearly half a dozen Sudanese refugees were reported killed along the border fence.
On the other side lies relative prosperity and protection – a westernized country, a more sympathetic government and a broad array of refugee services including, in some cases, jobs.
“It’s good. I love Israel. There’s good people here,” said Emanuel, a 16-year-old Sudanese boy who made it safely across. Now he lives in Ibim, an aliyah youth village on Sderot’s outskirts run by the Jewish Agency for Israel. There, Emanuel sleeps on a clean bed, gets three meals a day and occasionally gets taken to swimming pools, summer camps and nature excursions.
“Conditions were bad in Egypt. There was no work,” he said. “My uncle works here.”
The Jewish Agency’s decision to help Emanuel and some 750 other refugees is one of the latest twists in what has become a political and moral dilemma for Israel: How to handle an estimated 2,500 Sudanese who have crossed the border illegally into Israel over the past couple of years.
Many Israelis say helping the refugees is a humanitarian gesture befitting the Jewish state, but even among them there is concern – shared by many Israelis – that too warm a welcome will lead to an endless flood of Sudanese trying to enter the country.
“In this country there’s a special understanding and a special experience, and obviously people fleeing genocide receive a special status. There’s been a government decision that such people are not going to be sent back,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry. At the same time, he said, “It’s clear that Israel cannot be the answer for the suffering in Sudan.”
Only an estimated 10 to 12 percent of the migrants – about 300 people – are from Sudan’s Darfur region, where a genocidal campaign by government-sponsored Arab militiamen known as Janjaweed has resulted in the murder and rape of hundreds of thousands of black Africans.
Most of those entering Israel are from southern Sudan, where warfare and bleak economic conditions have prompted locals to take flight. A few of the migrants are not Sudanese at all, but Africans from other troubled spots, such as Eritrea. The Israeli government did not provide exact figures on the refugees’ countries of origin.
The Sudanese refugee issue dates back at least two years, but the situation intensified earlier this summer when in June an average of 50 persons per day crossed the Egyptian border illegally into Israel, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Experts said the news likely had spread in the Sudanese refugee encampments in Egypt, where the Sudanese originally had fled, that circumstances were better in Israel.
The sudden surge in illegal immigrants put the Israeli government face to face with an international cause celebre that had roused the passions of human rights advocates worldwide, many of them prominent Jews.
In Israel, nobody was quite sure what to do.
After verifying the migrants did not represent a security threat, the Israeli soldiers who picked up the Sudanese along the border deposited them in the closest major city, Beersheva, where for a time the mayor put them up in a local hotel. Incensed that the government wasn’t offering any long-term solutions, Beersheva mayor Ya’akov Turner eventually announced that his city would accept no more refugees, and he began sending the Sudanese arriving in his city by bus to Jerusalem, where they were dropped off opposite the Knesset.
The Israeli government sent them back to Beersheva and during the back-and-forth, some Israeli agencies and individuals stepped in, offering to house the Sudanese.
Some Israeli families took in a few refugees, kibbutzim took in others and 58 were put up by the Jewish Agency at the Ibim aliyah youth village, an absorption facility for young immigrants near Sderot. A few days later Jewish Agency Chairman Ze’ev Bielski offered to house up to 700 more Sudanese at absorption centers in Hadera and Tiberias.
“The raison d’etre of the Jewish Agency is facilitating immigration and initial absorption,” said Michael Jankelowitz, a spokesman for the agency. “But Ze’ev Bielski, after he was contacted by the prime minister, felt that on a humanitarian basis this was the right thing for the Jewish Agency to do, as a Jewish issue.”
Bielski’s offer prompted angry responses from local officials Hadera and Tiberias. Hadera’s mayor was quoted in one Israeli newspaper, vowing to fight any move to “dump” the Sudanese in his city.
The government eventually came up with an interim solution, moving many of the refugees with no other place to go to a facility adjacent to the Ketziot prison along the Egypt-Israel-Gaza border that had been prepared for them by the government.
“For us this is a new set of issues we haven’t had to deal with until now, and we’ve got to get our act together,” Regev said. “It’s very important we control immigration.”
Israel says it will return all the illegal immigrants to Egypt except those fleeing the genocide in Darfur. But no deportations have taken place. As for the refugees from Darfur, Regev said Israel will work with the United Nations to find them a permament home.
“No one in this group is going to be forced to go back to the slaughter in Darfur,” Regev said. “We’re working closely with the international community to find expeditious solutions for these people.”
Israelis themselves appear divided on the issue. A survey released this week by the Kevoon Institute showed that more Israelis prefer deporting the Sudanese than keeping the refugees – 47 percent to 39 percent. Fourteen percent of those questioned were undecided.
Many human rights groups oppose the deportation of the other refugees to Egypt, arguing that the Sudanese may be penalized in Egypt for their illegal flight across the border or, worse, returned to Sudan, where they are liable to be killed for having fled their country for the Jewish state.
Last week, 63 Knesset members sent a petition to the Olmert administration urging the government not to return the refugees to Egypt but instead to find them safe haven abroad.
“The refugees who arrived here need protection and shelter,” the petition said. “Their absorption as refugees is a moral duty, considering the history of the Jewish people and the values of democracy and humanity.”
Signatories included Likud Party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, Labor’s Amir Peretz and Effi Eitam of the National Religious Party.
One of the refugees’ most visible advocates in Israel is Aliza Olmert, the prime minister’s wife, who last month wrote her own first-person account tracking the refugees’ journey into the Jewish state in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot.
“I come home laden with letters of request and the sense of urgency of someone who has been burned by what her eyes have seen,” Olmert wrote. “The world is separated into those who have met refugees face-to-face and those who are only vaguely aware of them.”
One Israeli absorption official who works with the refugees said it warms his heart to help these people fleeing their war-torn country. “It’s the best face of Zionism,” he said. But something about the refugees’ treatment in Israel also strikes him as unfair.
Sudanese families are given free housing, clothes and toys, the refugee children are taken to swimming pools, and the fathers are given farming jobs, while hundreds of thousands of poor Israeli families are on their own when it comes to dealing with poverty and hardship.
“The question is how far you take this,” said the official. “Someone asked me the other day why I don’t care for kids from Ofakim,” a poor Jewish town in the Negev. “There are kids from the projects in Beersheva who haven’t seen a swimming pool in years.”