Friday, July 13, 2007

TEL AVIV — Refugees from Sudan’s Darfur crisis are reaching Israel in ever higher numbers, prompting plans to confine them in a refugee camp and eventually force them back to Egypt.

About 400 refugees trickled into Israel from Egypt over the past two years, but the number has tripled since April after Sudanese relatives and acquaintances in Egypt were encouraged by reports that many had found work in hotels in the resort town of Eilat.

When the refugees started arriving in Israel, they were imprisoned.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed at a recent meeting that the refugees would be returned to Egypt, but human rights advocates say they will appeal any mass deportation to the Israeli Supreme Court.

Almost on a daily basis, Israel’s army collects refugees who have sneaked into the country from the Egyptian Sinai desert and drops them by the busload next to the police station in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. Volunteers — often students at Beersheba University — must scramble to find shelter and food for the refugees, who are increasingly women with young children.

But Israeli municipalities such as Beersheba and Eilat are worried that the refugees might become their financial burden. Last week, some of the Sudanese in Beersheba were packed onto a bus and sent to Jerusalem. Within several hours, they were sent back.

“There is no [government] policy,” said Sigal Rozen, spokeswoman for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli group that is helping the Sudanese find work.

“If 20 arrive today and there are only four places in the prison, they’ll send four to the prison and dump the rest in Beersheba. It’s completely arbitrary,” she said.

The tent city, which will be overseen by Israel’s Public Security Ministry, will be located near the Ketziot jail that holds Palestinian security prisoners. It will be secured by prison authority guards and will have accommodations for 1,000 refugees. Israeli authorities, who call it a “hospitality” center, say refugees will be given food, beds and medical treatment.

Ministry spokesman Yehuda Maman insisted that the Sudanese welcomed the decision despite the harsh desert weather at Ketziot and the fear of snakes and scorpions.

“They are saying, ‘At least we will have a place to rest instead of having kids sleeping on the street,’ ” he said.

Mr. Maman said only a few among the Sudanese are real refugees, and most of them are “infiltrators and illegal aliens.”

“I ask you: If there are another 40,000 illegal immigrants, we should let them in?”

Israel’s long border with the Sinai desert is open in some places, making it easy for smugglers to spirit drugs, prostitutes, and now refugees, into Israel.

Israel has no diplomatic relations with Sudan. Israel’s Shin Bet security agency suspects that the refugees could have links with terrorists. Refugee aid organizations say no Sudanese have been arrested for criminal offenses.

Eytan Schwartz, a spokesman for an umbrella organization of refugee rights advocates, said research showed that refugee camps have a negative effect on the residents.

“Deporting them back to Egypt risks them being deported to Sudan,” he said. “The people who are here now should be granted some kind of legal status, [and] at the same time, Israel should broker a deal with Egypt that would seal off the border.”

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