Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 August 2007
Issue No. 856
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Here today, gone tomorrow

Why are increasing numbers of Sudanese refugees fleeing Egypt for Israel, asks Gamal Nkrumah

Stories are rife about an increase in the numbers of Sudanese refugees fleeing Egypt for Israel. Dozens of Sudanese are reported to have crossed the border into Israel under the cover of darkness. Smuggling rings in Israel and Egypt are taking advantage of the desire of Sudanese refugees in Egypt to seek greener pastures in Israel and are making a killing out of the business.

Anecdotes began to circulate among the restive Sudanese refugee community in Egypt about the perils of the journey to Israel almost a decade ago. One apocryphal tale centred on Sudanese asylum seekers who, after being caught on their way to Israel were thrown into Egyptian jails .

Israel has never been a cheap destination for impoverished Sudanese asylum seekers, and their presence is as fractious there as it is in Egypt.

While the problem is not new it is getting "worse" according to the Israelis. Khamis, one of the first Sudanese to cross the border from Egypt to Israel maintains that he does not regret the move. "In Israel Sudanese can earn $4 per hour. In Egypt such a wage is unheard of. Moreover, medical care and educational opportunities are far better in Israel than in Egypt."

Another Sudanese refugee in Israel, Daniel, described his ordeal. "We were smuggled across the wilderness of Sinai at night. There were Egyptian and Israeli military patrols and we were in constant danger of hitting a minefield. It was a hellish journey but we made it to the 'Promised Land'," he said.

Such stories have prompted many Sudanese to make the dangerous journey across the Sinai wastelands to Israel where, according to Mike Kagan of the American University in Cairo, some Sudanese refugees live for free on Israeli kibbutz's.

The human trafficking has taken the Israeli and Egyptian authorities by surprise. When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert paid a visit to Sharm El-Sheikh last June, ostensibly to discuss the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process, it later transpired that the main topic of discussion was the repatriation of the Sudanese refugees in Israel, many of whom are languishing in Israeli jails. The Israelis apparently wanted reassurances from Egypt that the Sudanese refugees would not be deported to Sudan upon their return to Egypt. At a press conference at the end of his meeting with Mubarak, Olmert disclosed that Egypt had pledged not to deport any returning Sudanese refugees. Egyptian officials declined to comment. Indeed, so sensitive is the subject it has received little coverage in the Egyptian press beyond occasional reports of Sudanese being caught trying to illegally cross the border into Israel.

Last week, it was reported that a group of Sudanese and Ethiopians were detained in the Suez Canal city of Ismailiya on suspicion of planning to cross into Israel illegally. According to the latest statistics, 24.5 per cent of the estimated 4,000 Sudanese in Israel are from the predominantly Muslim war-torn western province of Darfur. The bulk of Sudanese in Israel, an estimated 61 per cent, are from southern Sudan.

Excessively harsh socio-economic conditions and racist attitudes in Egypt seem to be the main reason why Sudanese refugees want to relocate to Israel. Of the Sudanese refugees now resident in Israel 71 per cent report verbal and physical abuse as the main reason for their fleeing Egypt. Some 86 per cent had refugee status with the UNHCR in Egypt, though those crossing the border spent an average of six months in detention upon arrival in Israel. Others are subject to indefinite detention.

Sudan is considered an enemy state by the Israelis and Sudanese refugees are viewed as suspect. This is especially the case with Muslim Sudanese from Darfur and northern Sudan. Southern Sudanese are culturally more attuned to Israeli culture, and Israelis warm up to them. "The Israelis are suspicious of us because we are Muslim," complained a Sudanese originally from Darfur.

Israeli Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On says the problem of Sudanese refugees in Israel is one of numbers. He argues that if Israel relaxes its immigration policy as far as Sudanese refugees resident in Egypt are concerned the country would be inundated with refugees. "We will invite a flood," he said.

The December 2005 Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque incident, when police violently cleared a garden square of an encampment of protesting Sudanese refugees, killing many in the process, has had a negative impact on the refugees' view of Egypt. The numbers of Sudanese seeking to cross into Israel rose dramatically after the incident. The Israelis want Sudan's immediate neighbours to improve the conditions of refugees on their territory. There are an estimated 400,000 Sudanese refugees in Kenya, 400,000 in Chad and 100,000 in Egypt. Yet on the UN human development index, Israel stands at 23, Egypt at 111 and Kenya at 152. Chad is among the world's poorest and least developed nations and Sudan is not far behind.

Many Sudanese cross into Israel from the Red Sea resort of Taba to work in hotels in the adjacent Israeli port of Eilat. Egypt is not under any legal obligation to take Sudanese refugees back.

The Egyptian authorities want to see more humanitarian assistance from wealthier nations for Sudanese asylum seekers. Some European countries are prepared to accept a select number of Sudanese refugees from Israel. About 50 Sudanese refugees were recently resettled in Sweden. They can never return to Sudan where they face capital punishment for having lived in Israel in the first place.

Sudan has consistently refused to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Any Sudanese national who visits Israel is automatically charged with high treason. Yet with the violence in Darfur continuing Sudanese are fleeing their country in ever-increasing numbers. Israel, among the wealthiest countries in the region, will continue to attract Sudanese refugees and Egypt will remain the conduit.

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