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.
Despite a news blackout on the whereabouts of people caught trying to cross to Israel, the government-owned Al Ahram Weekly courageously described the forty-eight refugees Friday as victims of a “nightmarish tragedy shrouded in mystery.” It accused the world of turning “a blind eye to their plight.” Barbara Harrell-Bond, a Cairo-based member of the board of directors of the Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA), fears that some of the refugees may have been tortured. “We can assume that people who are in prison in Egypt are subject to torture by officials and it can be worse still if they are in with other criminals. The situation is just hellish within Egyptian prisons.” Egypt’s security forces admitted to killing a Sudanese woman in July and wounding four other refugees as they attempted to cross the border and, Egyptian officials said, they ignored orders to stop. Last Saturday, an Eritrean woman became the latest victim. She was shot and bled to death as she tried to cross to Israel, according to Egyptian security sources quoted by the Associated Press.
But rather than condemn the Egyptian crimes, Israel is covering them up. The Israeli army has refused to release footage of an incident reported by Israel’s Channel 10 television in early August, during which Egyptian forces allegedly killed three Sudanese refugees in sight of Israeli soldiers at the border, beating two of them to death. And this brutality is nothing new: in 2005 an estimated twenty-seven Sudanese died when Egyptian security forces broke up a protest encampment outside the Cairo offices of UNHCR.
Unrepentant over the disappearances, Israel’s assistant attorney general, Yochi Gnessin, is trying to get the country’s Supreme Court to endorse the “quick deportation without hearing” policy so that it can be redeployed in the future. The state’s case is based on the reassurances Olmert claims to have received from Mubarak, but Egypt has denied the existence of any such agreement and Israel has offered no proof to the contrary. UNHCR, whose mandate is to protect refugees, appears to have done the opposite. Miki Bavli, an Israeli national who heads the UNHCR representation in Israel, backed the Israeli decision to carry out rapid expulsions without hearings in remarks quoted by the UN-sponsored IRIN news service on July 4. “You cannot shop for asylum,” said Bavli, “Asylum is given at the first country the refugee enters. This is not about seeking the most comfortable state.”
According to a July 23 letter by Bavli to Gnessin, UNHCR participated in a July 1 meeting chaired by Olmert that discussed “the steps planned as presented by the prime minister” on the issue of those crossing into Israel from Egypt. Bavli referred in the letter to “the agreements that have been reached between the prime minister and the president of Egypt on the issue of the continued passage of asylum seekers between the two countries.” He likened the purported Mubarak-Olmert agreement to other formal agreements on cross-border movements of people, like those between the US and Canada. However, in a letter to Gnessin dated September 20, a month after the deportations, Bavli reversed himself, writing this time that no such agreement exists. Both letters were copied by Bavli to Anat Ben-Dor, head of the legal clinic for refugees at Tel Aviv University. Refugee rights lawyers made both letters available to The Nation. Between the writing of the two letters, forty-eight refugees were deported and left to an unknown fate, something Bavli did not condemn.