PM to IDF: Do more to stop infiltrators

Orders Interior Ministry to expel all illegal infiltrators by week's end; Barak: Funds needed for fence.

Sudanese refugees 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sudanese refugees 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday ordered the deportation of thousands of African asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally via Sinai and whose lives would not be endangered if sent home. The Africans should be expelled by the end of the week, the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement. At a meeting called to discuss the issue, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter told fellow cabinet members that an estimated 7,200 people had infiltrated the Israel-Egypt border in the past 14 months. "Wake up," Olmert said at the meeting. "We can no longer continue in this way, not stopping the border infiltrators." Following the meeting, Olmert instructed the Public Security and Interior ministries and the Immigration Authority to work to expel by next weekend people who had entered Israel through the Egyptian border and did not have any legal issue preventing their deportation. Olmert also instructed the Foreign Ministry to contact governments in the refugee seekers' countries of origin to coordinate other solutions for them, as well as to identify countries to which infiltrators could be deported without placing them in danger. The team appointed to determine the status of each infiltrator - whether they are in fact refugees or merely work-seekers - will be reinforced to help speed up its work. In the wake of the increase in the number of people illegally entering Israel, Olmert initially proposed allowing soldiers to open fire on infiltrators, but later decided to provide non-lethal weapons and crowd control devices to troops along the Egyptian border. The IDF, said Olmert "is not doing enough to prevent infiltrators from entering Israel through Egypt... You have a responsibility, and I want to know what you are doing about this matter." "Our problem is that we deal with them once they're already inside, and then an immediate return becomes impossible," Dichter said, adding that 5,000 infiltrators were caught in 2007 alone. The issue of the so-called "hot return" policy - through which the would-be entrants would immediately be returned to Egypt, was a hot topic at the meeting. Participants agreed that in its current iteration, it had failed. Nearly one year ago, Olmert announced that Israel would return to Egypt the majority of the refugees who had arrived in the previous three years. Olmert said that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had agreed to take back the refugees. In August 2007, Egypt agreed to such an procedure, in which 48 would-be infiltrators, including 18 children, were returned to Israel's western neighbor within a day of their arrival. But since that one instance, the policy has not been implemented. Five were sent back to Sudan, and jailed by the Sudanese government for having entered the "enemy State of Israel." Many of the other 43 have disappeared since returning to Egypt, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has been unable to locate them. Organizations who work the refugees are using the case of the 48 refugees to try to deter the government from returning others to Egypt. Israel is a signatory to several international treaties on refugees, which obligate the country to protect them if they face mortal danger in their country of origin. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel needed to speed up the construction of a "smart" fence along the Sinai border that would alert the IDF as soon as the frontier had been compromised. Similar fences are already in place along the perimeter of the Gaza Strip, and on Israel's northern and eastern borders. Barak said his ministry had completed the planning stages for two the fence in two crucial areas, and called on the Finance Ministry to provide the funds necessary to put the plans into operation. Nearly half of the refugees currently in Israel are from Sudan, where a 22-year conflict has left more than 2.5 million dead, while the most recent refugees have largely been from Eritrea - which millions have left to avoid forced conscription. Israel has agreed to grant asylum and temporary residence status to 600 refugees from Sudan's western Darfur province, the site of ongoing genocide.