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Israeli NGOs strive to release jailed refugees

Some Sudanese refugees are working in kibbutzim - Israeli collective farms. Tamar Dressler/IRIN

Israeli NGOs are campaigning to have 120 Sudanese refugees who fled violence in first Sudan and then Egypt released from the Israeli prisons they are being held in.

The refugees are among 320 Sudanese, mostly young men, who trekked for up to a week through the desert to cross Israel’s porous 200km border. They told IRIN that the desert was littered with the bodies of those who did not survive the gruelling journey.

Once inside Israel, many were imprisoned. But NGOs such as the Israeli Hotline for Migrant Workers have had success in getting about 200 of them released into kibbutzim and moshavim – Israeli collective farms – where they can work. Some women and children are housed in a shelter near the northern port city of Haifa.

“Why have we been in prison for so long? We are refugees, we believed that Israel was a democracy and would not jail us for escaping genocide. As time goes by we grow more and more desperate,” said one Sudanese prisoner who wished to remain anonymous.

Israeli interior ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said the government was doing its best to find a solution.

But the Sudanese have not been given automatic refugee status because Israel's Government Secretariat Office has considered Sudan to be an enemy state since 1948.

The Hotline said Israel was violating section 44 of the Geneva Convention Protocol, an addition that it had itself initiated in 1951 following the discovery that Jewish refugees from Germany had been imprisoned in the USA during World War Two because it was claimed they were citizens of an enemy state.

An outrageous scandal

“We consider it an outrageous scandal. Israel is doing exactly the same today with those escaping genocide,” said Sigal Rosen, the Hotline’s spokeswoman.

Sudanese began arriving over the Israeli-Egyptian border after a bloody end to a demonstration in Cairo’s Mustafa Mahmud Park in 2005, when Egyptian police killed 27 demonstrators and left many more injured.

''Why have we been in prison for so long? We are refugees, we believed that Israel was a democracy and would not jail us for escaping genocide.''
The journey can last from two days for those able to pay the Bedouin guides to a week for those trying to make it on their own. The refugees evaded Egyptian army patrols by crossing the Israeli-Egyptian border on foot at night.

“If the Egyptian soldiers had found me they would have shot me," said Bitian, a young refugee who has spent the past 10 months in Ketziot prison in the Negev Desert.

Severe cuts and bruises on the refugees' feet are evidence of this long journey, according to aid workers, prison staff and volunteers. The refugees arrive in southern Israel with nothing but the clothes on their backs, many suffering dehydration.

"If you want to cross the border with your family you need to pay several hundred dollars to the Bedouins. We know there are many who did not make it across and their bodies are lying in the desert," added another refugee from south Sudan who wished to remain anonymous.

Many of the refugees still have relatives in Sudan, some in the camps in Darfur, and they fear the government might do them harm if their identity is made public.

Prison with convicted criminals

Some 46 Sudanese are being held in a wing alongside convicted Israeli criminals in Ketziot prison in the Negev Desert, which is mostly home to Palestinians held on security grounds.

Previously they had been housed in tents and the prison represents an improvement in their conditions.

''We know there are many who did not make it across and their bodies are lying in the desert.''
They receive medical treatment as well as social care. Those who wish to work can be paid about US $30 a month, which they can use for phone calls or for shopping at the prison canteen.

In the kibbutzim and moshavim, the Sudanese are freer – but they are not allowed outside the kibbutz compound unaccompanied.

“The conditions are good, the people try to make us feel at home, but I miss my freedom, I wish they'd let me leave the kibbutz on my own,” said M, a refugee working at Yotvata kibbutz, whose entire family was killed in Sudan.

The Hotline and the Clinic for Refugees Rights at Tel Aviv University have appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court claiming that holding refugees in jail alongside criminal offenders is prohibited, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and that their detention is pointless as they cannot be returned to Egypt or Sudan.

Last Wednesday the Supreme Court ordered the state to provide an explanation for the refugees’ imprisonment within 45 days.

“All parties involved, including the interior and foreign ministry and the immigration police, are trying to find a solution to this specific issue," said Sabine Haddad, spokeswoman for the Israeli interior ministry.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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