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Behind the fences of the Saharonim Refugee Camp in the western Negev, Israel Prisons Service guards and Sudanese refugees alike have welcomed into their midst a new addition to camp life. Albert, a five-kilogram baby less than one week old is the first baby born to a Sudanese refugee in the IPS facility.
Even baby Albert's name is a testament to the battles he will have to wage - and to his family's attachment to Israel. He was named for the assistant warden of the prison, who has been a figure of compassion to the refugee mother since she arrived in Israel five months ago.
"Albert is one of the warmest people we have here. He's a father himself, and I always knew that he was a good person to work with the refugees," said Ketziot Prison Chief Warden Shlomi Cohen, who explained that Albert took care to maintain a calming and compassionate presence among the 2000 refugees at Saharonim.
"Baby Albert's mother told Albert that if her baby was a boy, she would name the baby after him. We thought that she was just being polite, and we could hardly believe it when we found out that she actually did it," said Cohen.
Albert's mother is a 27-year-old mother of four who fled from the killing fields of Darfur, eventually making her way, together with her husband, across the Israel-Egyptian border in late July.
Cohen said Thursday that the mother had just been absorbed at the camp when she began experiencing attacks of nausea. A series of checks at the camp's clinic confirmed what the young mother already suspected - she was pregnant, this time in Israel.
Earlier this week, Albert was born at Beersheba's Soroka Hospital - and then he and his mother were returned to Saharonim, where Cohen says that the IPS is prepared to care for the mother and the newborn.
"We have everything for them - carriages, baby formula, diapers," said Cohen, adding that there are an additional 19 babies, all born outside of Israel, currently in the camp.
The population boom inside Saharonim - which now holds approximately 1,000 people including refugees from Darfur as well as others who have entered Israel seeking work opportunities - has not gone unnoticed.
Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said Thursday that he intends to bring the subject of what he termed "increased infiltrations across the Egyptian border" before the cabinet in the near future.
"The Saharonim facility is full. The other IPS facilities are practically out of space. The fact that the IPS and the ministry are 'making do' in the mean time allows the rest of the players to continue in their coma," Dichter said, blasting other government officials for not finding more viable solutions to the phenomenon.
According to police data presented by Dichter, 120-200 people cross the Israel-Egyptian border each week, of whom approximately 30 percent are from war-torn Sudan.
The refugee camp outside the Ketziot Prison was set up as a temporary solution to Israel's mushrooming refugee problem. In 2005, less than 100 African refugees had sought asylum in Israel.
While exact numbers are not available, human rights organizations estimate that there are anywhere between 2,000-3,000 African refugees currently in Israel. Half of them come from Sudan, while at least 700 come from Sudan's western province of Darfur .
During the summer, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that he would grant asylum to 500 refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan who arrived in Israel before July 1. The rest of the refugees are scheduled to be deported to Egypt, according to a deal worked out between Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The fate of 48 African refugees - 44 Sudanese, three from Ivory Coast and a Somali - that Israel had previously deported may jeopardize that deal.
As reported first in The Jerusalem Post, Egypt deported at least five of those refugees to Sudan in late October, violating the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, of which Israel and Egypt are both signatories, in which it is illegal to forcibly transfer or return any person to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened.
The deported Sudanese could face persecution because they sought asylum in Israel, a country which Sudan officially lists as an enemy state.
In September, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry released a statement reaffirming its status towards Israel, and adding that it would "firmly punish" any Sudanese discovered to have visited Israel.
"Egypt's apparent decision to forcibly return Sudanese asylum seekers is unconscionable," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Middle East director. "We are extremely worried by Egypt's failure to account for these people. The entire incident reveals Egypt and Israel's shared disregard for the plight of Sudanese fleeing Darfur."
The Hotline for Migrant Workers filed a petition with the High Court of Justice, arguing that it was illegal for Israel to continue to deport refugees to Egypt, if they faced risk of being returned to Sudan.
"There need to be other options made available," said Romm Lewkowicz, spokesman for the Hotline.
While Jewish organizations have been meeting regularly with Aliza Olmert, wife of the prime minister, to discuss sending the refugees to an alternative African nation, they have been unable to reach a deal. Ghana, Kenya, and Ethiopia are all being considered, but none of those countries has yet agreed to take in the refugees.
Sudan has been at war for more than two decades, the longest war in documented African history. During the civil war, which began in 1983, nearly two million southern Sudanese were killed while another four million fled their homes.
In 2003, the Khartoum-based government began a program to root out rebels in the western province of Darfur.
Hundreds of thousands of Darfuris have been killed, while more than three million have been displaced from their homes. The ongoing crisis has been labeled the first genocide of the 21st century by the UN and the US.
"The genocide in Darfur has gotten much media attention. But there has been genocide in the entire country," said Akun, a southern Sudanese man who paid Egyptian smugglers to bring him into Israel nearly one year ago. "The Israeli government jumped on the publicity of Darfur and has decided to give them asylum. But they have to understand that the whole country is genocide. They have to ask each one of us our stories and then tell us we cannot stay."
Meanwhile, the outlook for baby Albert's future seems a bit more positive. His father has already been released by the refugee camp's review committee, and is currently employed in Eilat, making it likely - said one IPS official - that he, his mother and his siblings will not be returned to face an uncertain fate in Egypt or back in Sudan.
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