Israelis extend mixed welcome to Sudanese

Israelis weigh concerns about their moral responsibility and the refugees' economic and demographic impact.

Agnes has jagged lines cut into her legs from the day, less than a week ago, when she climbed over coils of barbed wire that separate Egypt from Israel.

After escaping from Sudan to Egypt, only to find that life in Cairo wasn't much better, she and her husband headed here. She was so desperate that she didn't care if reaching safety meant clambering over metal thorns or risking being shot at by Egyptian border police.

Today, she's in a prison compound recently set up by Israeli authorities for refugees escaping Sudan. Women and children are in one section; male prisoners – including her husband – are held in separate cells. Tomorrow, she could well be deported, since she came in illegally and has no official refugee status. An additional strike against her is that she does not come from Darfur, but from southern Sudan.

That puts her among the majority of the approximately 1,700 African refugees who have streamed into Israel since the beginning of the year, less than a third of them from Darfur. While southern Sudan is recovering from the horrors of a decades-long civil war that ended with a tenuous peace in 2005, its refugees are not accorded the same priority as those directly fleeing what the US has termed genocide in Darfur. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said this summer that it would accept up to 500 Darfurian refugees, and that the rest would have to return.

Such distinctions are lost on Agnes, whose full name, Agnes Samson Nagune Isharo, reflects a mix of Christian and animist roots typical in southern Sudan.

"If I ever go back to Sudan, I know they will kill me. Life in Egypt is no good because they don't like this color," she says, pinching the skin on her forearm. "I just want to stay here."

So do many of the dozens of refugees arriving from Africa each day – primarily but not exclusively Sudan. But Israel has yet to create a comprehensive policy, addressing the streams of refugees filling its prisons, communities, and workplaces on an ad-hoc basis.

As it struggles with a response, the government is faced with the concerns of many Israelis who say that their nation, created to offer haven for Jewish refugees, should be particularly sensitive to those today in need of refuge. At the same time, Israel's proximity to Africa raises concerns about opening the door to unlimited numbers of refugees as well as economic migrants, especially given its ongoing demographic struggle to maintain an identity as a tiny state that is both Jewish and democratic.

Some refugees, like Agnes, are being jailed here at Ketziot Prison – the women and children in colorful, air-conditioned facilities that are more like shelters, the men in regular cells. Others are finding housing and work on farming communities known as kibbutzim and with individual families willing to take them in, thanks to a coalition of advocacy groups that has argued for "alternative custodies."

"The rationale we convinced the judges of is that, on the one hand, there's no place to put them or absorb them, and yet there's no way to deport them [given current policy]," says Romm Lewkowicz, spokesman of the Hotline for Migrant Workers.

But while Israel has avoided sending large groups back until now, that approach looks likely to change. A week ago, 48 Sudanese were turned away at the border before they had a chance to enter Israel and apply for refugee status. Human rights activists say that enforcing this new policy, dubbed "hot return," violates nonrefoulement, which says that countries should not return refugees to the country from which they're fleeing before they've had a chance to have their cases considered for UN refugee status.

"We think it's clear there's a good chance that those who have been in Israel will be killed [if they return]," says Eitan Schwartz, the spokesman for the Coalition for the Advancement of Refugees from Darfur (CARD), an umbrella group.

"These distinctions, from Darfur or from elsewhere in Sudan, are political: These people escaped atrocities and those people escaped atrocities, and we think it's our responsibility to let them in. The problem is, anyone who's been here can never enter Sudan safely again," Mr. Schwartz says, pointing to a recent Sudanese statement that citizens who've been in Israel would be dealt with severely. (Israel and Sudan do not have diplomatic relations.)

The tension between what some see as Israel's moral responsibility and its economic and demographic concerns has been evident in the mixed political reactions. A slew of politicians signed a petition this summer demanding that Darfur refugees not be forcibly returned. In July, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the defense forces to "apprehend infiltrators and quickly return them to Egypt via the border crossings, while accepting Egyptian assurances regarding their safety." Egypt, however, said it would not accept refugees who'd been in Israel.

"One of the problems is that we don't really have a refugee law," says Lisa Richlen, a field officer with the Hotline for Migrant Workers. "The 'infiltrators law' is being applied to them, which means they can be held indefinitely without being given a judicial review."

The Hotline and groups such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel have brought the battle to the Supreme Court to try to force examination of refugee applications on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, those dealing with the problem on a daily basis are having to scramble. Prison officials, for example, complain they haven't been given the budget or capacity to deal with the influx of refugees and are having to scrape money from already taxed budgets. In September, they expect to open another camp to accommodate families.

Mr. Olmert has also ordered the Interior Ministry to study construction of a reinforced border fence with Egypt. Long stretches through the desert are delineated only with barbed wire. Bedouin on the Egyptian side look for – or create – weak spots and, for a price, help direct refugees to them.

That is how Samia, another woman held here in Ketziot, managed to get through. She left Darfur after she'd lost countless relatives and her husband, who was abducted by the Sudanese military. That was three years ago. Since then, she's been working odd cleaning jobs in Cairo, sometimes not being paid at all.

It was after a demonstration of Sudanese refugees living in such conditions in Cairo in 2005 that she decided to leave. Egyptian police opened fire on the crowd, killing 27 people. When she'd saved enough, she went to a smuggling agent and paid him $400.

Samia and others got taken to the Sinai desert by bus, then walked for about three days, she says, until they were led to where they could cross into Israel. "The Israeli soldiers saw us coming and waved us over, and said, 'Welcome, welcome.'"

Now, her three children spend the days hanging around in the TV room, playing games and trying to pick up Hebrew. Next week, when school starts, the children must attend, regardless of their immigration status, according to Israeli law.

For those trying to help refugees negotiate such demands, the logistical problems can be significant. Avishai and Yolanda Pinchas live on Kibbutz Kadesh Barnea, so close to the Israel-Egypt border that they can see the flags of both countries flapping in the dry, dusty wind. They can also hear when Sudanese trying to flee to Israel are shot at by Egyptian forces.

It was after one such night of gunfire that the couple decided to open their home to refugees from Sudan, turning their farmland into a communal tent and playground, and the bed-and-breakfast bungalows they were building into housing for up to 50 refugees at time.

While many people backed them, others – like the head of the municipal council and some neighbors – were furious, and tried to get the Pinchases to clear the refugees out. The council head sent a bus one day, but Mr. Pinchas refused to put the refugees on it and dared the officials to drag them out. They didn't.

For now, it's become an accepted place for Sudanese to live. "Every few days, I get calls from groups or even the police saying, 'I have some Sudanese here, can you take some more?' " he says, sitting on his deck overlooking the desert and his farmland, where small Sudanese children skip in the afternoon sunshine. "There's no law to tell me how many people I can put on my property," he adds.

Suzanne Delba Akol is grateful for that. She and her husband have five children, and after three months of living in a Cairo park, they decided to get out. Originally from south Sudan, she lived in Khartoum and was jailed and beaten, she says, because she worked for a church and was accused of trying to convert Muslims.

On the way here, she says, all she could think of was getting her children across the border alive. "By that point, you don't feel much. The Egyptians were cursing at us from across the fence when they saw us go through.... We knew that even being in a jail here is better than life there," she says. "I don't think I have a future, but I want one for my kids," she says. "I'll go anywhere they want to send me. But not back to Sudan, and not back to Egypt."

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