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Refugees should not be locked up, say rights groups

Three African female refugees inside a new camp set up by the Israeli authorities for illegal asylum seekers. Tamar Dressler/IRIN
After an unprecedented influx of asylum seekers illegally crossing the border from Egypt, the Israeli government in June ordered the establishment of a "refugee camp" for the new arrivals. Recently, the first residents were brought in.

[This is story is also available in Arabic]

Israeli Interior Security Minister Avi Dichter called the compound "accommodation prior to deportation", a reference to recent policy to deport to Egypt nearly all who cross the porous border. 

Experts on refugee affairs say some 1,800 Sudanese have entered Israel in the past 18 months, with the overwhelming majority having arrived in the last six. Of these, several hundred are from the devastated Darfur region. Several hundred more escapees, mostly from Africa, have also entered the country.

Although human rights groups say the conditions in the camp are decent, and services such as medical care are available, they remain concerned that many people fleeing tragedies, wars and destruction are now being placed behind bars.

"Let's call it by its name. These people are prisoners. If you're not free to walk out the door - you're a prisoner," said Anat Ben Dor, a lawyer with the Legal Clinic at Tel Aviv University, who represents some of the detainees.
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Also, organisations like hers have expressed concern that the refugees do not have telephone access, making contact with lawyers more difficult.

"This is the first time Israel is holding [such young] children inside prisons," added Sigal Rozen, from the Hotline for Migrant Workers, a non-governmental organisation (NGO).

The official position of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is similar - the conditions at the camp are not the issue, but rather the fact that the camp exists as a prison.

However, observers and rights group are worried by the unclear stance of the agency's local chief, Miki Bavli, who has not made any public statements about the plight of the refugees.

“Camp” inside prison

The "camp" is located inside Ktsiyot prison, in the southern Negev desert. The prison holds some 2,500 Palestinians accused of security offences although prison officials are quick to note there is no contact between the two populations.

Oded Saar, an Israel Prison Service (IPS) warden in charge of the refugees, opposes the prison terminology.

"[The Africans] are not prisoners," he said.

"They're here because they've infiltrated Israel and this is the solution the government offered," he added.

The camp, once completed, can hold some 1,300 people, said Saar.

Construction work on a new camp outside the prison seems to be taking place at an expedited pace. Until the work is completed, however, the refugees remain inside.

Photo: Tamar Dressler/IRIN
An Israeli guard explains matters to new arrivals in the refugee camp
One prison guard, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IRIN he would not chase the refugees if they tried to escape, possibility indicating sentiments prevalent among fellow officers.

About 450 refugees, including 350 Sudanese, make up the camp population. Some 100 or so are women and children.

"We've filed petitions to the High Court, representing four different people, demanding that they be immediately released," said lawyer Ben Dor.

"They've been in Ktsiyot for over 14 days without seeing an adjudicator" which is their right according to Israeli law, she explained.

Fear of deportation

She noted that for some of the detainees, going back to Egypt, and certainly to their home countries, was not a possibility, and "therefore, there is no reason to keep them in detention" as they are refugees.

One such case is a woman from Eritrea who fled her homeland after she was forcibly conscripted into the army for over 11 years. Her requests for discharge, so she could marry and start a family, were all ignored.

Others, especially those from Darfur, complained of ill treatment while in Egypt, and for them, returning to Sudan was certainly not an option right now.

For refugees inside the compound, the real concern is about being deported.

M., a 17-year-old boy from Eritrea, said "I'd rather die that go back there." Rights groups said that for him too Egypt was not an option as it had sent refugees back to Eritrea, to danger.

Photo: Tamar Dressler/IRIN
Sudanese refugee children and Israeli guards in an arts and crafts session
However, it is entirely unclear if Israel can deport him. Although Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak agreed "infiltrators" would be returned to Egypt, recent statements from Cairo contradicted in full the Israeli leader's statement.

Also, at least six Africans trying to cross into Israel have been killed by Egyptian soldiers. Two were brutally murdered, Israel's Channel 10 reported.

While politicians and diplomats contemplate options, prison officials are doing their best, they say, to make the refugees' stay pleasant.

TV sets, with African channels beamed in, are available, and the children can participate in arts and crafts sessions. Ironically, for people set to be deported, they can take Hebrew lessons.

However, with the school year about to start, rights activists are wondering if the IPS will find a real education framework for the children.

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