TEL AVIV — More than 200 refugees from Darfur and southern Sudan are languishing in Israeli prisons after illegally slipping into the country from the Sinai desert, creating a moral quandary for a nation made up of refugees and victims of Holocaust-era persecution.
“I don’t know who is going to help me,” said Jackson, a 27-year-old Sudanese refugee who used a pseudonym as he spoke by telephone from his cell at the Masiyahu prison in Ramle.
Jackson has been held without judicial review since he was picked up by border police after crossing from Egypt 11 monthsago. He said representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have visited him several times, but say they can’t do much for him because of the hostile relations between Sudan and Israel.
“They said, ‘We are going to look for a solution,’ but we don’t know when. I don’t want to come to Israel for a job; I’m asking for humanitarian help.”
There are about 230 refugees like Jackson in Israeli jails, according to the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an advocacy group, which has appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
The government says it has no choice but to imprison illegal immigrants from an enemy country.
“If you illegally enter a country, you can expect to be incarcerated. We are talking about enemy nationals who have come here illegally,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.
“We are working closely with UNHCR to find solutions. Our choices are limited. We are trying as expeditiously as possible to find humanitarian solutions. No one wants to prolong these people’s incarceration.”
But Israeli and American Jewish human rights advocates think the government should release the refugees until their applications for political asylum are heard. They argue that given the Jews’ history of persecution, Israel of all countries should be sensitive to their plight.
“It’s both a legal and a moral issue,” said Larry Garber, executive director of the New Israel Fund. “We appreciate the relationship between our history and the numbers of times that the Jews were refugees from various countries.”
Other human rights advocates say Israel should remember that Britain took in Jewish refugees fleeing Germany during World War II, even though the two countries were at war.
Mr. Regev took umbrage when asked about the World War II comparison. “We are not sending anyone back to Darfur,” he said, adding that he was the child of Holocaust survivors.
Jackson said he was 11 years old when he and his younger brother were abducted from their home in southern Sudan by Arab militants who killed his parents.
After seven years in captivity, they escaped to Khartoum. But with violence on the rise, they rode camels through the desert to escape to Egypt. Facing discrimination and unemployment in Egypt, Jackson decided to sneak into Israel with the help of a Bedouin guide who charged him $700. He’s been in jail ever since.
Human rights advocates said the physical conditions in the jail are not terrible, but warned that prisoners being held indefinitely without trial or sentencing are prone to depression.
“They don’t have anything to do, no studies. They don’t know when it will end. They are stuck there without anything to do,” said Shevy Korzen, a director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers.
The refugees who have reached Israel are a tiny fraction of the more than 2 million Sudanese citizens who have fled Sudan since 2003 for fear of violence sponsored by the Khartoum government.
In Egypt, which has absorbed most of the refugees, the Sudanese face police intimidation and are hard-pressed to find jobs. In December, police killed at least 27 refugees, including a child, at a makeshift camp where the Sudanese had been protesting their conditions.
The Israeli government has permitted the release of about two dozen of the refugees. Most of them are women and children, and they have been taken in by kibbutzim where they live and work under house arrest.
But there are no plans to release any more of the refugees, who are now being held under a 52-year-old law drawn up to handle Arabs caught infiltrating the country. The law allows military officers to order the incarceration of infiltrators without any judicial review.
Michael Bavli, the UNHCR representative to Israel, said his office has been overwhelmed by the Sudanese inflow, and it has taken them months to interview them.
The organization is trying to broker a “humane” solution to the problem, but the task is “complicated,” he said. The answer probably lies in finding a third country willing to accept the refugees.
“The Israeli law doesn’t allow them to stay,” he said. “Another solution has to be found.”