Activists protest refugees' transfer to Ketziot Prison

Protesters plan to try and prevent police from moving Sudanese to bungalow and cells inside jail.

sudanese jlem 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
sudanese jlem 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Some 300 human rights activists protested in the Rose Garden opposite the Knesset on Sunday against the police plan to transfer dozens of Sudanese refugees from various locations around the country to a Ketziot Prison. The protesters, comprising of students, human rights activists and refugees, marched from the garden towards the Prime Minster's Office, where they gave PMO employees some 700 letters addressed to the prime minister from Darfur refugees. Police are intending to house the refugees in a bungalow and cells at Ketziot before eventually moving them to a campsite currently being erected next to the prison. The protesters were also planning to prevent police from reaching the refugees to transfer them to Ketziot. Organizers of the protest said they had been informed that moving the refugees to Ketziot may begin as early as Sunday evening but probably would not commence until Monday or Tuesday. Ketziot has come under heavy criticism and opponents of the plan have termed the planned camp site a detention centre. Also, the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council sent a letter to Public Security Minister Avi Dichter on Thursday announcing that it would take legal steps to stop the "camping site" being erected around the prison. An Eilat-based police officer told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that a plan was in the works to evacuate the refugees, and officers were being immunized against various ailments that health officials fear the refugees may be carrying. Police denied that a plan was in place. Hundreds of male Sudanese refugees have been working in Eilat hotels in exchange for room and board, according to a deal worked out by aid organizations. "They say that they will be moving these people to a campsite, but this is just a play on words," said Ilan Lonai, a campaign coordinator for Amnesty International. "This is a place they will not be allowed to leave. This is a detention camp." Amnesty has already joined a number of other organizations in sending letters to the Prime Minister's Office and Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz to protest the refugees' deportation and the camp being set up for them in Ketziot. "It's very clear that the government is doing something here that is outside the due process of the law," Lonai said. "This can't be done arbitrarily, and having the police essentially arrest and move the refugees is not a legal move. This is deportation outside the realm of due process and without clear orders." Earlier this week, the Post reported that the deportation process was being delayed because the Egyptians had not yet worked out a way to transfer the deportees. A number of organizations, including the United Nations, have said the lives of the refugees would be in danger in Egypt. Last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that he had reached an agreement with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to begin deporting the refugees back to Egypt. The Prime Minister's Office has repeatedly assured the refugees that they would not be deported until their safety had been assured. A spokeswoman for Olmert said the plan was to deport only African refugees who have come to Israel seeking work, but to try to work on an alternative solution for Sudanese refugees from Darfur, where fighting between ethnic African rebels and pro-government militias began in February 2003 and has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million. More than 2,800 people have entered Israel illegally through its southern border with Egypt, including several hundred from Darfur, according the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Ramat Hanegev regional head Shmuel Reifman said Dichter had no authority to erect the camp without negotiating with the regional council, which holds jurisdiction over Ketziot. "The decision to build the refugee camp in the area of Ketziot, in desert conditions, on land that is suspected of being contaminated, and that is near the border and the Ketziot jail, is essentially unacceptable," he said. If the government had any humanitarian concern for the refugees, he added, it would have established a camp in the North or center of the country. Meanwhile, one of the refugees, Michael, said he didn't chart his journey from Sudan to Israel by months, or even years, but by the children who have been born to him along the way. His oldest, now a four-year-old boy, began to speak only a week after a raid on their native village in northern Darfur killed Michael's brother and father. "My son called for water, and I did not know if I could bring him any," said Michael, who asked not to use his real name. So Michael and his family journeyed to Egypt, where they were accepted as asylum seekers and placed alongside hundreds of thousands of other refugees in camps in the South. Michael's second child was born in that camp, spending his infancy in dark rooms where the family hid to protect themselves against the local militias that often raided the camp. "I only left to work and I would tell my family never, never to leave the home," Michael said. "I was very scared what might happen if they should leave." Once he had accumulated enough money, Michael moved his family once again, this time to Israel. Using Beduin smugglers, and completing the last leg of the journey by foot, Michael and his family arrived in Israel in the middle of last month's heat wave. Now, with his wife pregnant again, Michael is wondering where his next child will be born. For Michael and his family, any camp would do. Currently housed in a shelter just outside Beersheba, his wife is receiving medical attention for the first time in months, and health care workers have given them baby formula for their youngest son. As for his four-year-old, he has already learned the Hebrew word for water, although he prefers the juices and sodas that the volunteers bring in. •