The government on Sunday said it would turn away refugees fleeing Darfur and seeking asylum in Israel, after it deported to Egypt for the first time almost 50 refugees that escaped the war-torn region.
"The policy of returning back anyone who enters Israel illegally will pertain to everyone, including those from Darfur," said David Baker, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office.
There are currently some 2,500 African refugees in Israel, including roughly 500 from Darfur.
The government has been struggling with what to do with the refugees, whose numbers have shot up in recent months to as many as 50 a day, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, apparently as word of job opportunities in Israel spread.
Israel Radio reported that PMO officials said Sunday night that Prime Minister Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak agreed in a phone conversation Sunday that Israel would continue to return to Egypt Sudanese refugees who illegally entered it.
The prime minister instructed the Immigrant Absorption Ministry on Sunday to absorb the Darfur refugees already in the country in Israel. "Those already in Israel will be allowed to stay," Baker said.
This decision, however, is only applicable to Darfur refugees already in Israel, and those who cross the border in the future will be immediately returned to Egypt.
Fighting between pro-government militias and rebels in the Western Sudanese region of Darfur has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million since February 2003.
The refugees deported on Sunday were arrested Friday evening as they tried to cross from Egypt into Israel, and were held for over 24 hours at an IDF base in southern Israel before bussed back to Egypt on Sunday.
IDF figures showed that of the slightly more than 50 refugees deported, close to 50 were from Darfur. The rest were from the Ivory Coast and Somalia.
This is the first instance in which Israel has returned African refugees to Egypt, in accordance with an agreement reached between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit.
An government official said Egypt has agreed to treat the Darfur refugees well, but acknowledged it might send them back to Sudan. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the press.
Egyptian riot police violently cleared a refugee encampment in central Cairo in 2005, killing nearly 30 people.
The move comes about two weeks after, amid reports of violent treatment the refugees face in Egypt, 63 MKs signed a document urging the government to refrain from deporting Sudanese refugees to Egypt. The signatories included Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, Labor's Amir Peretz, Hadash's Dov Khenin and the National Religious Party's Effi Eitam.
The prime minister said Sunday that he welcomes the move. "Mubarak has met his commitments, and this is the first sign of the prevention of infiltration from Egypt to Israel in a free manner."
Hadash MK Dov Khenin said in response that, "The expulsion is an inhumane act that violates international law."
Five of the refugees arrested Friday were taken to Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva.
A Reuters photographer who joined an IDF patrol in southern Israel documented one of the refugees being bound to a chair with plastic handcuffs. According to the IDF, the refugee was handcuffed due to the fact that the army must first treat all infiltrators as security threats, and removes the handcuffs once it is determined that the infiltrator is a refugee.
Darfur refugees form panel to represent their interests Sudanese refugees in Israel last week formed a committee consisting of 11 elected members to represent their interests.
The refugees began infiltrating Israel through Egypt about two years ago, having fled the genocide in Darfur, where Arab militias have been butchering the black Africans living there.
The refugees are being helped by Israeli aid groups including HaMoked Center for the Defense of the Individual, the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. In October 2006, the Committee for Advancement of Refugees from Darfur was established as an umbrella organization that works on behalf of some 1,300 Sudanese refugees in Israel.
But last week's election was the first time the refugees have taken such an initiative themselves. The main tasks facing the committee are setting up a learning center for refugees to study Hebrew, English and computer literacy, and raising awareness regarding the plight of those left in Darfur.
The refugees also plan to form a non-profit group to work on resolving problems they encounter in Israel.
The meeting Wednesday opened with a discussion of the refugees' absorption in Israel and their difficult journey here. Photographs documenting their escape hung on the hall's walls.
The audience was made up largely of young people. Speakers emphasized the importance of trying to nurture cooperation with the Israeli public.
"We must think about how the refugee can help another refugee and how we can deepen the connection between the people who come from Darfur and the Israeli public and aid organizations," one 18-year-old leader said.
He added that the refugee issue is a social and political matter with which Israel can and should deal. He mentioned Olmert's announcement several weeks ago that an agreement had been reached with Egypt to return infiltrators. "We hear talk about decisions in Israel to send people back to Egypt, but we think that Israel cannot make such decisions. This is a country with love for people who come from outside," he said.
The young Darfurian suggested that a bond of suffering could unite his people and the Jews, concluding: "We are asking the Jewish people to take us in. We, survivors of the genocide in Darfur, now live in the land of Zion."
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