Israel Wary of Sudanese Refugees

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About 350 refugees from Sudan have been intercepted entering Israel illegally over the past two years, with about a third of them coming from the conflict zone of Darfur.

All the refugees have been jailed in Israel, many for more than a year. Israeli officials say they have to be cautious about Sudanese because Sudan is an enemy state.

But Israeli human rights groups say a nation built in part by genocide survivors has a special responsibility to help other victims. The Sudanese government has been accused of waging genocide in Darfur.

On an early spring morning almost six years ago, members of Sudan's Janjaweed militia burst into Abdullah al-Bakr's village in west Darfur. He says they set the huts in the village on fire and killed dozens of people. al-Bakr grabbed his 17-year-old sister and tried to run away.

"Unfortunately one of janjaweed shoot her on her head," al-Bakr said. He said it was the worst thing he'd ever witnessed: "My sister dying in front of me and I can't do anything, I can't protect her."

Al-Bakr ran into the mountains to escape, wandering for days barefoot and with no food. He hasn't seen his parents since then and he doesn't know if they are still alive.

Al-Bakr's eyes well up as he recounts the rest of his saga — a few months in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, and then two years in Egypt. Fearful of deportation, he fled again, giving a Bedouin smuggler $100 and a leather jacket to take him through the Sinai desert to Israel.

But less than two hours after crossing the border, Al-Bakr was caught by Israeli soldiers, handcuffed and taken to an army base where he was interrogated.

"I told him we are Darfurian, escape from genocide and we're crossing from Egypt looking for protection, asylum-seekers looking for protection — protection that we lost in our homeland, looking for it in Israel," he said.

Al-Bakr was jailed under a 1954 law on infiltrators from enemy states, including Sudan. He spent 15 months in prison and says that, although well-treated, he and his fellow refugees began to despair.

"What's going on? Will we spend our entire life in this prison? We are not criminals, we are innocent people," he said. "We are victims of genocide. We suppose the Israeli government to help us not to punish us."

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev says Israel is sympathetic to the refugees' plight, but has to make sure they are not dangerous to Israel's security.

"Sudan as a country has a very hostile relationship with Israel. It's not a secret that there is unfortunately a very strong al-Qaida and terrorist presence in Sudan, so there is a need that everyone who's crossing the border is interrogated and so forth," Regev said. "They are here illegally, they're illegal immigrants, They're enemy aliens."

Critics say none of the refugees has any connection with al-Qaida. They also say the 1954 law which mandates their arrest is unfair and should be changed. Michael Bavli is the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jerusalem.

"When Jews fled away from Nazi Germany and arrived in Britain they were arrested in 1939 in Britain as Germans. They were not Germans. They were Jews fleeing Germany," Bavli said. "There should be a method by which someone fleeing Sudan should not be treated by his being a Sudanese but his being a victim of Sudan."

As a temporary solution, Bavli and several Israeli human rights groups negotiated a deal with the Israeli government to release more than 100 of the refugees -– al-Bakr among them — into the custody of kibbutzim, collective farming villages.

Al-Bakr shares a small apartment with four other Darfur refugees. He says it's better than being in jail but he wants a more permanent solution.

"Actually, if I got a chance to stay here I'll be glad, I'll be glad and this is what we ask the Israeli government," al-Bakr said.

So far, Israel has said it will not allow any of the refugees to stay permanently.

Bavli says the U.N. has been unable to get any third country to agree to accept them, either.



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