Sudanese refugees in Israel face uncertainty
Over 200 Sudanese slipped into Israel from Egypt's Sinai in past year to escape years of war at home. ‘We have civil war in our country and we fled not to create trouble but to find safety,’ refugee says. Yad Vashem chairman: As members of the Jewish people, for whom the memory of the Holocaust burns, we cannot stand by as refugees from the genocide in Darfur hammer on our doors’
Taking a deep puff on his cigarette, Sudanese refugee Sanka says sneaking across the desert border from Egypt into Israel was perilous, but worth it - despite being sent to jail.
"There were Israeli and Egyptian soldiers on both sides. I could have been shot at any time as that place is a firing zone," said Sanka, now taking refuge in this quiet Israeli communal farm overlooking the crystal waters of the Dead Sea.
Sanka is among 220 Sudanese who have slipped into Israel from Egypt's Sinai in the past year seeking asylum in the Jewish state or a third country to escape years of war at home.
The numbers have increased over the last year as violence rages in Sudan. Sudan's north-south civil war lasted more than two decades and made 4 million people homeless. Fighting in the western Darfur region has created 2 million refugees.
They have joined a flow of hundreds of refugees, mainly Africans but also from Asia and South America, who have entered Israel. Some hope it will provide a gateway to Europe, others, like Sanka, a safe place to live.
But Israel considers the Sudanese refugees, who entered illegally, as enemy nationals partly because of Khartoum's hostility towards the Jewish state.
Most of the 220 Sudanese in Israel have been put in jail awaiting word on their fate. Israeli and United Nations officials say they are trying to find a solution.
Around 20 of the refugees have managed, with the consent of Israeli authorities, to be placed in homes and collective farms known as kibbutzim. But they would be sent back to jail if they left their areas.
Sanka, in his late 20s and from Sudan's stricken Darfur region, spent a year in jail before being allowed to move to Kibbutz Ein Gedi. Sanka would only give his nickname, saying his full name could not be used for legal reasons.
The refugees argue they could be persecuted if they return to Sudan, especially after having sought help in Israel.
"We have civil war in our country and we fled not to create trouble but to find safety," said Sanka, who did odd jobs in Sudan. "I was fed up in Egypt. I came to Israel to seek help."
Last December, 27 Sudanese asylum seekers were killed in clashes when Egyptian police broke up a sit-in demonstration near the U.N.'s refugee agency office in Cairo. At the time, some 3,500 Sudanese were demanding resettlement in the West.
The plight of the Sudanese refugees has begun to generate debate inside Israel.
Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, the Jewish state's Holocaust museum and memorial, recently wrote to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert urging Israel to "show solidarity" with the Sudanese refugees and help find a solution.
"As members of the Jewish people, for whom the memory of the Holocaust burns, we cannot stand by as refugees from the genocide in Darfur hammer on our doors," Shalev wrote referring to the Nazi Holocaust, when six million Jews were killed during World War Two.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel wanted to resolve the issue as soon as possible.
"It is not acceptable that these people remain incarcerated and we are trying as quickly as we can to find a way to have a speedy humanitarian solution," Regev said.
Many of the Sudanese refugees are locked up in Ramle prison, a town in central Israel.
"To go back home is a problem. The war is not finished," one prisoner said behind a metal grill. "It is better here (in Israel)," he added, before prison guards hustled a Reuters television crew away.
Tel Aviv University's Refugee Rights Clinic, along with the Hotline for Migrant Workers human rights group, recently petitioned Israel's high court over the detentions.
"The incarceration is illegal and we have said these people are survivors of genocide and should be treated as refugees," Refugee Rights Clinic lawyer Anat Ben-Dor said.
Ben-Dor, whose clinic represents around 50 of the Sudanese refugees, said the high court was looking into the issue.
Michael Bavly, representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, told Reuters the agency was trying to find a solution with the Israeli authorities.
"Resettlement in a third country is the first solution," Bavly said. "I can say one thing that will not happen -- they are not going back to Sudan," he added.
Sanka is one of three Sudanese at Kibbutz Ein Gedi. He said they had been treated with kindness since they arrived.
"The judge told me Israel and Sudan are not in good engagement, this is why we cannot set you free because you may be a danger to our citizens," Sanka said, referring to a hearing after he was jailed.
"I do not believe that. When I came to Israel, I came to seek help and to be a friend of this country."