The Washington Times
Monday, August 20, 2007

TEL AVIV — The Israeli government has moved to cut off a two-year influx of Sudanese refugees into Israel, for the first time expelling back to Egypt about 50 Africans who illegally crossed the porous border with the Sinai Peninsula.

The Saturday night expulsion has reignited protests from human rights groups, who argue that given Israel’s history as a refuge for European Jewry fleeing Nazi Europe, the government has a moral obligation to show more sensitivity to those fleeing campaigns of genocide.

“The transition to the practice of taking people and booting them back over the border, when we know that some are looking for asylum and are in danger on the other side of the border, is forbidden from an international legal standpoint,” said Yoav Loeff, a spokesman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

“The state of Israel needs to think about these things more than any other country.”

By sending back the migrants — many of whom say they’re political refugees from southern Sudan and Darfur, in western Sudan — Israel is signaling that the unofficial open door that has enabled more than 1,200 refugees to flee Egypt is being closed.

Israel says it has already made a humanitarian gesture by offering asylum to 500 refugees from Darfur. The remainder will be expelled.

“The intention is for them to be returned as quickly as possible” to Egypt, said David Baker, a government spokesman. “We intend for them to be sent back to Egypt. Israel is doing its utmost to provide humanitarian relief, and I’m talking about refugees from Darfur.”

Fleeing discrimination, abuse and harassment in Egypt, the refugees have been reaching Israel through the Sinai with the help of Bedouins to infiltrate the open border. At first, the refugees were thrown into Israeli jails for months at a time, but many have been freed.

The infiltration attempts have become riskier since Egyptian border guards killed at least three refugees trying to reach Israel in the past two months. Even so, the pace of the arrivals has been growing, and reports that many Sudanese have found work in Israel may have made the country more attractive.

Put on the defensive, Israeli officials argue that only a small fraction of the migrants are true refugees and that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has promised Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the Sudanese won’t be sent back to their home country.

Akun Mou, a Christian from southern Sudan, said the expulsion decision leaves him worried that he will be sent back to Egypt. Though Darfur refugees are getting special treatment from Israel, survivors of the civil war in southern Sudan say they are deserving of asylum as well.

“I am in a dangerous situation now. If I go back to Egypt, the first thing they will do is deport me back to Sudan,” said Mr. Mou, 22, who doesn’t put much stock in the Mubarak government’s promises.

“Egypt and Sudan have links and cooperation in security. They’ll find a secret way to send us back. If they send me back to Egypt, within one or two days, they’ll send me back to Sudan, and in Sudan, I’m dead,” he said.

Human rights advocates say the refugees also face perils in Egypt, where Sudanese have a history of facing harassment.

“If I was escaping persecution in Egypt, the last thing I would want is to be returned to the very same people who persecuted me in the first place,” said Eytan Schwatz, who is a spokesman for an alliance of human rights groups helping the Sudanese.

“Egypt is known as a violator of human rights. It would be naive to think they would exercise restraint when it comes to the Sudanese.”

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