cute sudanese baby 298. .
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A new public relations campaign to justify government policy on African refugees was branded as "too little, too late," by American Jewish Organizations Thursday.
The campaign was launched this week, following a decision by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to deport the majority of the African refugees currently in Israel and bar any further refugees from entering the country through its porous southern border with Egypt.
Leading organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Federation in New York and Los Angeles have criticized the government's handling of the refugees, particularly the imprisonment of hundreds of male refugees in the Ketziot Prison.
Jewish organizations are key figures in the "Save Darfur" campaign to aid refugees from the Sudanese region.
"It is frankly embarrassing for many of us ... When we go to these events, people often ask how we can defend Israel's treatment of the refugees," said one leading New York Jewish activist, who asked to remain anonymous because his organization refuses to publicly criticize Israeli policy. "Jews, of all people, should have rahmanut [compassion] and act with extra sensitivity towards the refugee issue."
The issue has drawn the attention of Jewish political figures, including US Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), who sent a letter last week to Sallai Meridor, Israel's ambassador to the US.
"I am writing today to express my disappointment that Israel would turn away any person fleeing from persecution," Emanuel wrote. "I understand the concern the State of Israel has for maintaining the integrity of her borders, but if any country should understand the special needs of those affected by the genocide in Darfur, it should be Israel."
The new Foreign Ministry campaign includes a dossier, which explains that the presence of al-Qaida in Sudan means Israel must be especially careful with the refugees.
The Israeli government and the UN, which has been interviewing the refugees, acknowledge that until now, they have discovered no links between the refugees and al-Qaida, or any other terror organizations.
The dossier also states the government only agreed to deport the refugees to Egypt after being "guaranteed" they would not be returned to Sudan.
According to Human Rights Watch, which recently filed a petition against the Egyptian Interior Ministry, the refugees are being mistreated in Egypt.
Several refugees interviewed by The Jerusalem Post also recounted various abuses that regularly took place around the refugee camps in southern Egypt, including rape and systematic beatings by gangs.
Nearly 3,000 African refugees have sought asylum in Israel in recent years, according to government estimates. Approximately 1,700 of those refugees are from Sudan, while 700 are from Darfur.
According to Olmert's decision, Israel will grant asylum to 500 of the 700 Darfur refugees in Israel. The 1,200 other Sudanese will be deported to Egypt according to a procedure to be established by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
"Given Israel's size and limited resources, it has taken significant measures," said a Foreign Ministry official. "Israel is well aware of its responsibility as a sovereign state, but we cannot address this complex issue on our own."