NEW YORK (JTA) – Israel is facing a new refugee crisis as an increasing number of migrants from southern Sudan have been entering from Egypt. While some leading Israeli voices have spoken out with compassion, urging the government to abide by international law on refugees and Jewish tradition, others have adopted a harder line, arguing for the prompt return of the Sudanese to Egypt. Indeed, in recent days, Israel sent back 48 to Egypt to an uncertain fate.
“As Jews we cannot turn our heads from the suffering of another nation,” said Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Israel, urging the release of the detained Sudanese. Israeli Justice Minister Daniel Friedman has declared that “Israel has an obligation to assist the refugees who fled tyranny.”
Of the estimated 1,200 Sudanese currently in Israel, 1,075 are living in villages and kibbutzim, or are employed in the hotel industry or other small businesses. According to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, most who enter are economic migrants who hope to take advantage of the higher wages they could earn in Israel.
More than 100 are detained in prison and prison-like facilities, grouped with criminal offenders and separated from their families. They have not been given ample opportunity to submit asylum applications to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. Many have been kept in the notorious Ketziot prison in the Negev. There are plans to build a new facility to hold 1,000 individuals, primarily to keep families together. Ministry of Public Security officials told Ha’aretz that “even though the refugees will be behind walls and barbed wire, the atmosphere of their accommodations will not resemble a prison.”
In early July, Olmert’s office said most people entering from Egypt illegally would be detained and deported. Yet the practice of detention and deportation contradicts the internationally recognized rights of asylum seekers and refugees set forth in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which Israel has ratified.
The UNHCR office in Israel has expressed concern that the return of any Sudanese to Egypt would be unsafe. Sudanese who were able to make the dangerous trek across the Egyptian-Israeli border reportedly did so because they had found it was difficult to secure jobs, housing, health care or educational services.
In July, Egyptian officials killed a Darfur woman and wounded four others trying to cross the border into Israel. Another four Sudanese seeking to enter Israel were killed and beaten to death by Egyptian border control in early August.
Those who are returned by Israel may fare no better. Individuals who leave Egypt illegally face the risk of deportation upon return. Egyptian authorities claim that migrants originating from Darfur will be returned to Sudan.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that Sudan, a country listed as a sponsor of terrorism by the United States, is in a formal state of war with Israel. Sudanese crossing the border are considered “enemy infiltrators.”
“The policy of returning back anyone who enters Israel will pertain to everyone, including those from Darfur,” Israeli government spokesman David Baker said in mid-August.
Nongovernmental organizations suggest that as many as 80 percent of the Sudanese in Israel may be economic migrants. When legal experts and aid workers consider the other 20 percent, they say that a decision to detain all border crossers could pose a threat to other refugees and asylum seekers from Africa.
Israeli authorities can take several steps to alleviate the conditions of the Sudanese.
First, they should be given access to expeditious refugee status determination procedures as well as a fair procedure of review, including continued access to courts.
Second, refugees and asylum seekers should not be detained in conditions amounting to cruel treatment, particularly in prisons or prison-like facilities separated from their families.
Third, while security concerns may require screening and even temporary detention of those crossing the border in order to make a determination of their refugee status, they all must be treated humanely. UNHCR should continue to have access to all asylum seekers in order to ensure that their needs are adequately met.
These steps will help ensure the dignity and rights of those seeking asylum in Israel. Let’s remember that the crucial right of the refugee and asylum seeker under international law is the right of protection from refoulement – meaning the right not to be returned to a country where he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
Looking ahead, this is not Israel’s dilemma alone. A long-term sustainable solution to encourage safe and voluntary repatriation of refugees will require a greater international effort to address poverty-reduction strategies and development initiatives in Africa.
Gabrielle Thal-Pruzan is the Goldman Fellow at the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.