Logistic Hitch Delays Sudanese Refugees' Cairo Transfer

PMO: Egypt will stand by its promise to take refugees, but practical details take time to finalize.

The deportation of Sudanese refugees that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered earlier this month is being delayed because procedures for transferring them to Egypt have yet to be finalized with Cairo, the premier's office said Monday.

Olmert announced on July 1 that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had agreed to take the refugees back, and promised not to return them to their own countries. Thus far, however, not a single refugee or migrant laborer has been returned.

"The Egyptians understand that they have to implement Mubarak's commitment, but finalizing the minor details is taking time," Olmert's office said.

At a discussion of the refugee issue held by Olmert's Kadima faction Monday, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said he had decided to set up a "hospitality center" near Ketziot Prison in the Negev. All infiltrators will be brought there and sorted, he said, after which some will be jailed, some will be returned to either their own countries or Egypt and some will be allowed to stay in Israel. Initially, 1,000 people will be housed there, he added.

The site, which the ministry is setting up in conjunction with the Israel Prisons Service, will be ready in a few days, with the first 300 refugees arriving as early as Sunday, other ministry officials said. The refugees will be housed in tents, and the officials insisted that despite being next to a prison, it would resemble a camping site rather a jail.

Dichter acknowledged that the government has thus far faile d to solve the problem, but charged that the army "is not managing to carry out the order to stop the infiltrations."

Olmert told the faction that he obtained Egypt's permission to send the refugees back only after repeated applications to both Mubarak and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. He also said he has ordered the Welfare Ministry to prepare a plan to absorb a quota of refugees from Sudan's Darfur region.

Meanwhile, Mubarak's political adviser, Osama el-Baz, told the Meretz Knesset faction Sunday that Egypt's policy is not to deport refugees. He was responding to MKs' questions as to whether Cairo had really promised that refugees would not be returned to Sudan, where they would be in danger.

A group of 45 Sudanese refugees was bused Monday to the Knesset Rose Garden, since the Be'er Sheva municipality - which, along with Eilat, has absorbed most of the refugees until now - recently announced it could not absorb any more and would not allow newcomers to remain. Volunteers brought the group clothing upon their arrival, which was delayed until late afternoon because police initially refused to allow the buses to depart. After the refugees decided to remain there overnight in order to draw attention to their plight, several volunteers opted to sleep there with them.

Jerusalem City Councilman Sa'ar Netanel, who came to visit the refugees, said he was "disgusted by the inability of the government and welfare agencies to handle the Darfur refugees. They drag them about as if they were sacks of potatoes and move them from place to place, and it seems as if no one is lifting a finger other than the volunteers."

Be'er Sheva sent its first load of 58 refugees to the Rose Garden on Sunday, but they were then moved to Ivim, near Sderot, where the Jewish Agency agreed to house them in an absorption center for 10 days. At the time, some 240 Sudanese refugees were in Be'er Sheva, including 180 housed in hotels at the municipality's expense. The Prime Minister's Office promised reimbursement, but the money has yet to arrive, municipal officials said.