Israeli activists working on behalf of refugees from the war-torn region of Darfur in Sudan have condemned the expulsion on Sunday morning to Egypt of 48 refugees who had illegally crossed the Sinai border. The 48 - a majority of whom were reportedly from Darfur - were returned via the Nitzana crossing shortly after crossing into Israel.
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Eytan Schwartz, a spokesman for CARD, the Committee for the Advancement of Refugees from Darfur, said the expulsion was bad for Israel and a hasbara catastrophe.
At the weekly cabinet meeting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for implementing the agreement reached during talks at the Sharm e-Sheikh summit in July . Dubbed the "hot return" policy, the Israeli and Egyptian leaders agreed that infiltrators would be returned within hours of crossing the border.
"I hope the incident (the return of the 48 refugees to Egypt) marks the beginning of a process that will end illegal infiltration across Israel's border," the prime minister said.
Israel is planning to allow about 500 asylum seekers from Darfur, who are already in Israel, to remain here.
But Schwartz criticized Sunday's expulsion, arguing that the Jewish people have a moral obligation to extend their hand to those seeking refuge. "To send them back to Egypt is against Jewish values," Schwartz told The Jerusalem Post.
"The hasbara catastrophe is not worth whatever the government thinks it is gaining by this move," Schwartz said, "Our Christian friends will have a very hard time explaining why Israel is deporting Christian refugees back to the Muslim countries who persecuted them." Schwartz warned that in the past Sudanese refugees who were returned home after entering Israel were executed by the authorities. The Sudanese interior minister has threatened to hold all such refugees accountable.
The organizations working for the Darfur refugees support efforts by the government to deport African migrant workers, but advocate judicial review before deportation for all those who claim to be genocide refugees.
Israel has been grappling for months with how to deal with a swelling flow of Africans, including some from Darfur, who have infiltrated through its porous southern border with Egypt's Sinai desert. Government spokesman David Baker said he didn't know if any of those deported Saturday night were from Darfur, but noted Darfurians wouldn't be immune to Israel's ban on unauthorized migrants.
"The policy of returning back anyone who enters Israel illegally will pertain to everyone, including those from Darfur," he said.
Baker said those already in Israel would be allowed to stay, and that the deportation policy applied to new arrivals.
Fighting between pro-government militias and rebels in Darfur has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million since February 2003. Most of the displaced people remain in Darfur, but the UN estimates 236,000 have fled across the border to neighboring Chad, where they live in camps.
Tens of thousands of other asylum-seekers have sought sanctuary in Egypt, which is ill-equipped to provide jobs and social services.
Israel estimates that 2,800 people have entered the country illegally through the Sinai border in recent years. Nearly all are from Africa, including 1,160 from Sudan, and many spent months or years in Egypt before entering Israel.
The number of infiltrators shot up in the past two months, apparently as word spread of job opportunities in Israel. As many as 50 people arrived each day in June, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
It was unclear what fate expelled Africans would face once returned to Egypt.
Many Sudanese find life difficult in Egypt, where riot police killed nearly 30 people when clearing a refugee encampment in central Cairo in 2005.
Israel has often urged Egypt to step up its surveillance of the border to prevent the illegal flow of goods and people. Egypt has increased its efforts recently, with almost daily reports of African refugees arrested by authorities before entering Israel.
In July, Egyptian police shot and killed a Sudanese woman who was trying to cross into Israel, the first confirmed death of its kind. And earlier this month, Israeli media reported that Egyptian border guards beat to death two Sudanese men in front of Israeli soldiers.
Egypt neither confirmed nor denied either incident.
AP contributed to this report.