Free jailed refugees, protesters demand [pg. 4]

Among dozens of African demonstrators, some draped in Israeli and African flags and dripping with sweat under a sweltering sun on Monday, one hoisted a sign declaring: "Israel has a moral obligation to protect refugees." Oscar Tshimanga made the same point when he shouted into a bullhorn in Hebrew, "There are Israelis who were also born refugees." His words were intended for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, outside whose office Tshimanga and some 50 supporters congregated to press for amnesty and rights for Africans seeking asylum here. More than 300 Africans are currently being held in local jails, among them around 200 Sudanese refugees who sneaked across the Egyptian border. "These people are looking for security and democracy," Tshimanga said of those who escaped widespread murder and pillaging in Darfur. "These people were in danger. People in danger don't stop to get visas." Not merely because they entered Israel illegally but because they are also nationals of an enemy state, the Sudanese asylum seekers have been held in jail for the last year. Human rights groups have recently petitioned the High Court of Justice to have them released and recognized as refugees. In the beginning of May, the court gave the state one month to draft a proposal by which distinctions can be made between aggressors from enemy states and victims of persecution there. In the meantime, the UN is looking for other countries to take in the Sudanese, according to Michael Bavly, the representative in Israel of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "The big cry is 'Don't deport them to Sudan.' Nobody in the world wants to deport them to Sudan," he said. Michael Kagan, who is working at the Tel Aviv University Refugee Rights Clinic and traveled to Jerusalem for the protest, criticized Israel for not individually reviewing the cases of the Sudanese to determine whether or not each one represents a security threat. "Our main concern [is] the exclusion of Sudanese in applying for asylum simply because they are Sudanese. We want the state to stop assuming that people are dangerous just because they have the bad luck of being Sudanese," he said. "Israel is treating the Sudanese as if they are representatives of the government of Sudan, but they're here because they're the victims of the government." He spoke while protesters chanted in English, French and Hebrew all around him. "We are human!" they shouted. "Free jailed refugees!" Kagan accused Israel of violating the very provision of the Geneva Accords that it pushed for to ensure that Jews escaping persecution weren't regarded as enemy nationals, based on the difficulties German Jews faced upon reaching Allied countries during World War II. "We think the Israeli people are the best people to understand what we are facing today, according to their past and their history," said Jean Michel Bolima, who came here from the Democratic Republic of the Congo six years ago. "We are very happy to be in Israel, because Israel also has this experience. They know what it means to be a refugee, and they understand what we are facing, how we were being killed." Bolima is one of several hundred refugees who have been allowed to stay temporarily due to the ongoing war in his homeland. But he and his compatriots want more rights, such as health care, and the ability to stay here permanently. Instead of a banner, he held a poster full of photos conveying the horror he left behind: raped women, burned corpses, decaying bodies. "We have been through a lot of trauma already... We have been beaten and raped. We have been jailed in our countries," said Liberian Mawatta Kennedy. "We're supposed to be refugees. We need to be protected. But they are putting us in jail here too."