U.S., Israel pressed on Darfur refugees


NEW YORK (JTA) – The American and Israeli governments are being pressed on the Darfur refugee crisis.

Several Jewish groups are pushing for pressure on Congress to seek a global answer to the plight of the estimated 3 million people who have been displaced from their homes since fighting erupted in 2003 between villagers in the Darfur region of Sudan and the government aided by Janjaweed militants.

Israel is facing criticism, notably from U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), over its recent decision to stop allowing Sudanese refugees to enter the country.

Between 250,000 and 500,000 refugees have fled to Chad, surrounding countries, North Africa and the Middle East, including Israel. But some activists say it is unfair to have the nearby countries bear such a heavy humanitarian burden.

“There should be a worldwide effort,” said Ruth Messinger, the executive director of the American Jewish World Service, which has taken a lead role in the Darfur crisis. “If there was a proportionate response from elsewhere in the world, each country would end up with refugees to absorb.”

Messinger said her group and several other organizations, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, will be calling on the American Jewish community to pressure Congress to work for a global solution to the crisis.

She said the groups will be launching an information campaign aimed at U.S. congregations and would try to get Jews to contact State Department officials and congressmen between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“We need to figure out where we need to put pressure points,” Messinger told JTA.

The campaign by the Jewish groups comes as Israel is taking the heat for its recent decision not to accept more refugees.

Nearly 2,800 Africans entered Israel illegally through the porous Egyptian border in the past couple of years. Some 1,200 are from Sudan, but Israel has had trouble determining how many of them are refugees of the genocide or simply Sudanese seeking a better economic situation.

Nongovernmental organizations suggest that as many as 80 percent of them are economic refugees.

In July, 63 members of Knesset signed a petition to stop Israel from deporting the Darfur refugees. But this month the government – claiming that Israel is a small country and that it was being “flooded” – decided to stop the flow from Sudan and deport all but 500 Muslim refugees who were driven from their land by the genocide.

“Israel is certainly aware of the unique and dire situation of these refugees from Darfur, and it is based on our humanitarian concerns that we’ve decided to take in 500 Darfur refugees,” Israeli government spokesman David Baker said.

All other refugees “will be sent back to Egypt. That would include anyone coming from Darfur,” he said.

On Aug. 18, Israel returned 48 refugees to Egypt.

Baker said that other countries also need to take responsibility for the refugees.

The United States has taken in some 2,000 Sudanese, but Darfurians say that “none of them” were from their war-torn region, according to Messinger.

Israel’s new policy drew criticism from Emanuel, a powerful Jewish Democrat. On Aug. 20 Emanuel sent a letter to Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor, decrying the decision and asking that it be reconsidered.

“I am writing today to express my disappointment that Israel would turn away any person fleeing from persecution,” Emanuel wrote. “I understand the concern the State of Israel has for maintaining the integrity of her borders, but if any country should understand the special needs of those affected by the genocide in Darfur, it should be Israel.”

“The ambassador had a good and positive conversation with the congressmen in which he explained what Israel has and continues to do on Darfur and what challenges Israel faces on the refugees,” an Israeli embassy official told JTA.

Emanuel’s office did not return phone calls from JTA seeking comment.

Criticism of Israel has come from within the Jewish community as well.

In an op-ed this week, the American Jewish Committee called on Israel to offer refugees it detains a fair and expeditious process to determine their refugee status. The AJCommittee also said Israel should not detain refugees “in conditions amounting to cruel treatment, particularly in prisons or prison-like facilities, separated from their families.”

Though Messinger would not comment on whether she thought that Israel had acted improperly in closing its borders and deporting Sudanese nationals, she said she understands Israel’s predicament.

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