June 1, 2006

“Enemy” Sudanese refugees in Israel face uncertainty

By Jonathan Saul and Elana Ringler

KIBBUTZ EIN GEDI, Israel (Reuters) - Taking a deep puff on
his cigarette, Sudanese refugee Sanka says sneaking across the
desert border from Egypt into Israel was perilous, but worth it
-- despite being sent to jail.

"There were Israeli and Egyptian soldiers on both sides. I
could have been shot at any time as that place is a firing
zone," said Sanka, now taking refuge in this quiet Israeli
communal farm overlooking the crystal waters of the Dead Sea.

Sanka is among 220 Sudanese who have slipped into Israel
from Egypt's Sinai in the past year seeking asylum in the
Jewish state or a third country to escape years of war at home.

The numbers have increased over the last year as violence
rages in Sudan. Sudan's north-south civil war lasted more than
two decades and made 4 million people homeless. Fighting in the
western Darfur region has created 2 million refugees.

They have joined a flow of hundreds of refugees, mainly
Africans but also from Asia and South America, who have entered
Israel. Some hope it will provide a gateway to Europe, others,
like Sanka, a safe place to live.

But Israel considers the Sudanese refugees, who entered
illegally, as enemy nationals partly because of Khartoum's
hostility toward the Jewish state.

Most of the 220 Sudanese in Israel have been put in jail
awaiting word on their fate. Israeli and United Nations
officials say they are trying to find a solution.

Around 20 of the refugees have managed, with the consent of
Israeli authorities, to be placed in homes and collective farms
known as kibbutzim. But they would be sent back to jail if they
left their areas.


Sanka, in his late 20s and from Sudan's stricken Darfur
region, spent a year in jail before being allowed to move to
Kibbutz Ein Gedi. Sanka would only give his nickname, saying
his full name could not be used for legal reasons.

The refugees argue they could be persecuted if they return
to Sudan, especially after having sought help in Israel.

"We have civil war in our country and we fled not to create
trouble but to find safety," said Sanka, who did odd jobs in
Sudan. "I was fed up in Egypt. I came to Israel to seek help."

Last December, 27 Sudanese asylum seekers were killed in
clashes when Egyptian police broke up a sit-in demonstration
near the U.N.'s refugee agency office in Cairo. At the time,
some 3,500 Sudanese were demanding resettlement in the West.

The plight of the Sudanese refugees has begun to generate
debate inside Israel.

Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, the Jewish state's
Holocaust museum and memorial, recently wrote to Prime Minister
Ehud Olmert urging Israel to "show solidarity" with the
Sudanese refugees and help find a solution.

"As members of the Jewish people, for whom the memory of
the Holocaust burns, we cannot stand by as refugees from the
genocide in Darfur hammer on our doors," Shalev wrote referring
to the Nazi Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were killed during
World War Two.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel
wanted to resolve the issue as soon as possible.

"It is not acceptable that these people remain incarcerated
and we are trying as quickly as we can to find a way to have a
speedy humanitarian solution," Regev said.

Many of the Sudanese refugees are locked up in Ramle
prison, a town in central Israel.

"To go back home is a problem. The war is not finished,"
one prisoner said behind a metal grill. "It is better here (in
Israel)," he added, before prison guards hustled a Reuters
television crew away.


Tel Aviv University's Refugee Rights Clinic, along with the
Hotline for Migrant Workers human rights group, recently
petitioned Israel's high court over the detentions.

"The incarceration is illegal and we have said these people
are survivors of genocide and should be treated as refugees,"
Refugee Rights Clinic lawyer Anat Ben-Dor said.

Ben-Dor, whose clinic represents around 50 of the Sudanese
refugees, said the high court was looking into the issue.

Michael Bavly, representative of the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, told Reuters the agency
was trying to find a solution with the Israeli authorities.

"Resettlement in a third country is the first solution,"
Bavly said. "I can say one thing that will not happen -- they
are not going back to Sudan," he added.

Sanka is one of three Sudanese at Kibbutz Ein Gedi. He said
they had been treated with kindness since they arrived.

"The judge told me Israel and Sudan are not in good
engagement, this is why we cannot set you free because you may
be a danger to our citizens," Sanka said, referring to a
hearing after he was jailed.

"I do not believe that. When I came to Israel, I came to
seek help and to be a friend of this country."