Egyptian border guards arrested 20 Sudanese refugees on Tuesday as they tried to infiltrate into Israel, police said, one day after the Interior Ministry announced its intention to deport most of the African refugees currently in Israel to Egypt.
According to Captain Mohammed Badr of the northern Sinai Peninsula police, the group, including women and children, were from war-torn Darfur and southern Sudan and were seeking political asylum in Israel.
"People smugglers left the group near the frontier and fled just minutes before police arrived," Badr said. The Sudanese refugees said they had paid thousands of dollars to be smuggled into Israel.
About 200 people a year, mostly from Sudan, are smuggled from Egypt into Israel, according to the Israeli group Physicians for Human Rights.
On Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting that the African refugees who will be deported to Egypt "will not be returned to countries where their lives are in danger."
Olmert was trying to assuage concerns of human rights organizations regarding the fate of the refugees once they were deported to Egypt, from where they crossed into Israel.
Olmert and Egypt President Hosni Mubarak agreed last week that Israel would deport the African refugees back to Egypt though international border crossings.
Human rights groups expressed concern on Sunday that the prime minister's announcement regarding the deportation of the refugees failed to address questions about their safety, particularly the likelihood that they may in turn be deported from Egypt back to their home countries. Many are refugees from Sudan, and there is genuine concern for their safety if they are sent back to their home country.
Olmert told the Foreign Affairs committee that some 2,800 refugees and economic migrants have crossed into Israel from Egypt, and that 1,160 of them are from Sudan. According to Olmert's data, 2,500 persons crossing into Israel from Sinai during the first six months of the year.
Olmert promised that Israel will absorb the refugees that have already arrived from Darfur, and will help settle them in Israel. As for the rest, he said that they will be returned to Egypt.
'Most of the persons crossing are economic migrants, and there is no reason to hold them here and to create a community that [potentially] may reach hundreds of thousands.' Olmert said.
The representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Jerusalem, Michael Bavli, warned Monday that unless the wave of refugees is not stemmed in the south, 'the ability of the UN to deal with the influx of refugees will collapse. It is already terribly behind.'
The UNHCR evaluates four to five requests for asylum per day, but in practice there are more than 40 new arrivals each night.
During discussions of an inter-ministerial committee on Sunday, it was decided that those who cannot be deported to Egypt for a variety of reasons will be incarcerated. Much of the discussion on Sunday revolved around the infrastructure necessary to hold these people.
Part of the Olmert-Mubarak agreement also includes efforts to hermetically seal the border against cross-border migration by illegal immigrants or refugees.
Bavli expressed his support for the closing of the southern border to refugees and economic migrants from Egypt. 'It is the right of any state to close the border,' he said. 'It can build a fence, dig a trench or use drones.'
Bavli also made it clear that he is not opposed to the agreement between Olmert and Mubarak for the immediate deportation of the refugees who crossed into Israel from Egypt, as long as Egypt does not then send them back to Sudan.
The UNHCR representative noted that 'the refugees should be hosted by the first country that received them, and not returned to their home country.'
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