Text size

Israel must not send Sudanese refugees back to Egypt, the country from which they generally enter Israel illegally, Sharon Harel, a representative of the Israeli branch of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said yesterday.

Harel told a joint session of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers and the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child that Egypt would deport the refugees to Sudan, where their lives would be at risk particularly after having spent time in Israel, which does not have diplomatic relations with the predominantly Muslim country.

The session was held in honor of World Refugee Day, which takes place today.

Despite Harel's warning, MK Avishay Braverman (Labor), who heads the Knesset lobby for Darfur refugees, said Israel will have no choice but to deport them.

"When the numbers grow, the army will have to deport [the Sudanese refugees] back to Egypt, and the Egyptians will send them to Sudan to spill their blood," Braverman said. The solution, he said, is for the United States, Europe and Israel to pressure Egypt to absorb the refugees instead of deporting them.

Up to 2 million African refugees are estimated to be living in Egypt, and most of the Sudanese who cross the Egyptian border into Israel actually have spent many years in Egypt.

The number of Africans who have crossed into Israel has risen sharply in the last couple of months. Some 1,150 Africans have crossed into the country from Egypt since January, including 850 in the last six weeks alone. About half of those who have entered here since May are from Sudan, according to Interior Minister Roni Bar-On, who heads the special ministerial committee dealing with the refugee issue. While those fleeing the Darfur region have been receiving much of the attention, they constitute only a quarter of the Sudanese entering Israel.

There are more than 800 Sudanese refugees in Israel, with most of the other African migrants from the Ivory Coast or Eritrea.

The refugee issue has, along with weapons-smuggling across the border, become a major bone of contention in Egypt-Israel relations. In both cases, Israeli political officials said, Egypt is doing nothing to stem the flow toward Israel. The officials said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have raised the matter with Egyptian leaders to no avail.

The Israeli government has yet to take an official position on the refugees, but may be forced to do so in another month. MK Ran Cohen (Meretz-Yahad), who heads the Knesset foreign workers committee, has collected the signatures of 40 MKs backing a demand that the prime minister participate in a special debate on "the government's failure to resolve the problem of the Darfur region refugees." The Knesset bylaws give the prime minister 21 days to meet such a demand.

The debate is so entrenched that government officials could not even agree on what to call the Africans entering Israel illegally.

"They're not yet refugees," said Yossi Edelstein, a representative of the Interior Ministry's Population Administration. "They have the status of infiltrators."

MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor), who heads the Committee on the Rights of the Child, objected, saying, "We'll refer to them however we want to."

Harel noted that the issue is even more complex due to the increasing number of people who cross into Israel illegally looking for work and are sometimes lumped in with the Sudanese refugees.

One of the main reasons for the rise in migrants over the last couple of months is that the Immigration Police has no more room to hold them in custody, and the Israel Prison Service said there has been a significant drop in the number of amnesty seekers being jailed.

There is no state-run organization assigned to deal with the asylum seekers who cross into the country. The Israel Defense Forces captures them along the border and, as of last month, leaves them on the streets of Be'er Sheva after holding them in custody for no more than 24 hours, which the IDF says is the maximum amount of time it is allowed to hold them.

The refugees are then treated by volunteers, mostly social work students. The organizations Assaf and Hotline for Migrant Workers have helped find the refugees places to stay. The Sudanese refugees get most of the employment opportunities such as work in kibbutzim or in hotels in Eilat, where more than 400 Sudanese now work.

Barak Ravid and Yoav Stern contributed to this story.