Sudanese refugees 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Government officials and Jewish organizations are devising a plan to send most of Israel's African refugees to a third country rather than deport them back to Egypt, The Jerusalem Post learned Wednesday.
"There is the intention to find other options for those people whom we are not absorbing here," said a spokeswoman in the Prime Minister's Office. "We are working with different organizations and third-party countries."
Ghana and Kenya have been touted as two possible options, according to sources involved in the discussions, but neither country has agreed to provide a new home for the refugees. The Jewish organizations are also looking into funding the transfer of the refugees and providing a financial incentive for the countries that absorb them.
More than 2,400 African refugees have entered Israel in recent years through the porous border with Egypt. Roughly 1,700 are from Sudan, including around 700 from its war-torn Darfur province, according to Amnesty International.
Until now, the government policy has been to grant asylum to 500 of the Darfur refugees while returning the rest to Egypt through a deal worked out between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Hosni Mubarak.
In a speech to the Knesset Wednesday, Olmert confirmed the details of that plan, and announced that more than 300 refugees had already been given new homes and employment in the Negev.
"In a country like ours, when dozens of people arrive in the middle of the night, what can the state do, wait behind the border with guest rooms? Hotels? 50 Shin Bet interrogators?" Olmert asked. "To say that Israel has a humanitarian duty to care for everyone who comes here is an irresponsible exaggeration."
The Post has learned, however, that a number of Jewish organizations, both in Israel and abroad, have been insisting that the government accept that responsibility and provide alternative solutions for the 1,900 refugees not granted asylum by Olmert. Representatives from those organizations only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, as many are involved in ongoing talks with the government.
The idea to explore third-party African countries originated with Aliza Olmert, the wife of the prime minister, said an official involved in the discussions.
"When Aliza proposed looking to other countries, deporting the refugees to Egypt was the only option on the table," said the official. "But Egypt is extremely problematic."
The prime minister has maintained that Egypt not only agreed to take back the refugees, but that Mubarak personally guaranteed their safety.
"I will not honor the suggestions that I should not believe the assurances of the president of Egypt," Olmert told the Knesset.
Egyptian government sources, however, have stipulated that they never came to a formal agreement with Israel, and documents on their Foreign Ministry Web site state that Egypt considers any person who left the country illegally to be in breach of the law.
Non-government organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have alleged that there are serious human right abuses in Egypt, including the torture of prisoners.
"There are several international treaties regarding torture and refugees that Israel is party to. According to the provisions laid out in those treaties, Israel cannot deport refugees to Egypt," said an official involved in the refugee discussions. "Of the 48 refugees who have already been returned to Egypt, most have disappeared or been in prison ... and these are prisons where torture has been documented. There are serious legal and ethical questions regarding Israel sending anyone back to Egypt."
Most organizations working with the refugees see their return to other African countries as a somewhat preferable alternative to Egypt.
"The option of Ghana or Kenya is only a slightly better option. There is still the feeling that we are treating these refugees - many of whom are from Sudan, but others from Eritrea, Ethiopia and other countries - as 'the blacks' and returning them to Africa. Why are we dumping them on another poor African country?" asked one representative of an American Jewish organization.
The representative added that no country had ever attempted this type of transfer of refugees, and for Israel to do so would set a legal precedent.
"Israel has an obligation to deal with the refugees, to provide a safe haven within its territory. The Israeli government must remember that human beings are not objects or problems to be dumped from country to country," said Eytan Schwartz, spokesman for the Committee for Advancement of Refugees.