Forty-eight African refugees, mostly Sudanese, deported to Egypt from Israel in August, are in grave danger. At least five of them are back in Sudan, while the rest are being held incommunicado in Egyptian prisons notorious for torture and maltreatment. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees is not yet confirming the fact that refugees have been returned to Sudan, but has voiced concern over Egypt’s repeated refusal to say where the refugees are and to allow access. With the exception of 498 refugees from Darfur, Israel is now seeking to expel all the African refugees and asylum-seekers who entered the country in the past two years–roughly 2,500 people. The stated hope of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was to expel them all to Egypt but it is unclear to what extent–if any– the plight of the forty-eight may impact on those plans. Olmert calls the 2,500 individuals “economic migrants,” despite the fact that many are refugees and none have been given a hearing to determine their eligibility for asylum.
According to Article 33 of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, no state shall expel or return a refugee to a territory where his life and freedom would be threatened because of race, politics or religion. But Sudanese refugees are barred by the Olmert government from even applying for asylum in Israel on grounds that they are “enemy nationals”–despite the fact that the refugees themselves are fleeing the persecution of the Khartoum regime. Mohammed Ahmed al-Aghbash, the Sudanese refugee commissioner, went so far as to urge Egypt in June to “firmly penalize any Sudanese refugee if they were found trying to infiltrate through Egypt into Israel.” Although most refugees from Darfur already in Israel will be allowed to stay, any new refugees from that region will be treated the same as other African refugees and expelled without a hearing, according a July government decision. Olmert has claimed, without substantiation, that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak assured him that African refugees who crossed into Israel would be safe after returning to Egypt. Mubarak allegedly promised Olmert that the refugees would not be sent back to Khartoum, where their lives would be in danger.
But Olmert’s policy has cast serious doubt on Israel’s commitment to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, a document drafted with Israeli participation and influenced by the Nazi Holocaust. One of Israel’s leading Holocaust scholars, Yehuda Bauer, presciently warned back in July that Olmert’s approach would lead to disaster for refugees and disgrace for Israel. “It is a scandal for this government to adopt a policy of refoulement [driving them back], which is exactly what the Swiss government did during World War II to mostly Jewish refugees by handing them back to the Vichy government.” Said Bauer, academic adviser to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. “To turn refugees over to the Egyptians who have treated them so miserably goes against the grain of everything we stand for,” Bauer said. The missing refugees crossed into Israel from Egypt August 17 but were forced back into Egyptian territory by Israeli soldiers after they were denied a hearing and access to officials from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.
Egypt subsequently arrested all of the refugees transferred to its territory by the Israeli army. UNHCR says it has not been able to locate them ever since and that “it has not been provided access to any persons of the group despite repeated requests.” One Sudanese refugee still in Israel described the plight of a relative who was among the deportees returned to Sudan. The man, still in Israel, who speaks by phone with his relative, explains she spent twenty-four days in an Egyptian prison after leaving Israel, and was then sent on to Sudan. There the punishment for traveling to Israel is life imprisonment or execution, according to Ahmed Elzobeir, spokesman for the London-based Darfur Center for Human Rights and Development.