sudanese refugees 224.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Fear for the fate of the 48 African refugees whom Israeli security forces returned to Egypt two months ago increased Sunday, following a new report that at least five refugees had been deported to Sudan.
The 48 refugees have been missing since August 19, when they were apprehended by Egyptian security forces. Organizations that work with refugees attempted to track them down, following suspicions that they had been tortured, deported, imprisoned or sent to work camps. The Egyptian government has refused to disclose the whereabouts of the refugees.
On Sunday, UN officials confirmed that at least five of the refugees had been sent back to Sudan by Egyptian authorities.
"D.," a Sudanese refugee currently working in Israel, said his wife was among those five.
"For weeks I would call and call and could not find her - did not know where she was. Finally, [on Saturday], I reached her. She was in Sudan," said D., who asked to remain anonymous due to the security concerns he and his family now face.
D. said his wife had told him she had been deported to Sudan after being held in an Egyptian prison for three weeks. She told him that others among the 48 had been sent back to Sudan before her.
"Now she is being questioned by the Sudanese officials. They want to know why she was in Israel. They do not like it," said D.
Sudan considers Israel an "enemy state," and the two countries do not have diplomatic relations. Of the 2,400 African refugees who have crossed into Israel through its porous southern border with Egypt, roughly 1,700 come from Sudan. Yet the Sudanese government explicitly forbids any of its citizens from visiting Israel, emphasizing last month in a statement from the Sudanese Foreign Ministry that visiting Israel was a "crime punishable by imprisonment."
D. said he was not sure what type of danger his wife was now in.
"I do not know how much longer I will have to wonder if she and my child are okay. They are questioning her now. I do not know what they will decide to do with her," he said.
Under the agreement worked out by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, no Sudanese refugees should ever have been returned to Sudan. In his address to the Knesset earlier this month, Olmert said that Israel was to return most of the African refugees to Egypt under the conditions that they were "kept safe."
"I have the assurances, and I trust those assurances," Olmert said, adding that 500 refugees, all from the Darfur province, were to be given asylum in Israel.
Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Hotline for Migrant Workers, have all said it was illegal for Israel to deport the refugees, citing the 1951 International Convention on Refugees.
"Either Mubarak didn't intend to keep his word, or his security forces follow their own instructions, but either way, deportation back to Egypt could result in deaths in Sudan, and Israel cannot be an accomplice to that," said Eytan Schwartz, spokesman for the Committee for Advancement of Refugees.
A spokeswoman from the Prime Minister's Office said the Israeli government was not aware of any cases in which refugees they had deported to Egypt were sent back to Sudan.
"We want to specify that the agreement between Olmert and Mubarak said that illegal infiltrators who come to Israel and whose lives are at risk in their countries [of origin] cannot be returned to those countries," said a spokeswoman.
Last week The Jerusalem Post reported that the Jewish organizations were working with Israeli government officials to devise a secret plan to bypass Egypt and send the refugees to a third-party African country such as Kenya, Ghana or Ethiopia.
Concern for the lives of the 48 refugees, including the five in Sudan, could lead the government to pursue third-party countries more heavily, said the human rights organizations.
"I do not care where they send me anymore. I am very happy here. Israel has been the best place for me. But I want any place where there is work and I can have a life," said D.
He has been in Israel for nearly a year, and he said the money he earned from his minimum wage job was more than he had been paid in the past six years combined.
"For years I did not know what it was to be free - to work and make my own money," said D., whose strong voice shook as he recounted the 11 years he spent as a child soldier in Sudan.
Condemnation of the Sudanese government's tactics in Darfur, a western province of Sudan, has led to increased attention to the genocide unfolding there. In the southern part of the country, the Khartoum government has been fighting rebel groups for 21 years - Africa's longest-running war.
The UN estimates that two million people have been killed in Sudan, and another five million displaced.