In a state of limbo
Sudanese refugees deported from Israel now languish in Egyptian jails, reports Gamal Nkrumah
The world turns a blind eye to the plight of the Sudanese refugees deported from Israel on 18 August. They are stateless and homeless. In a nightmarish tragedy shrouded in mystery, 48 Sudanese refugees were deported from Israel to Egypt and are rumoured to be detained by the Egyptian authorities at secret locations. Friends and relatives have no access to the refugees in question, and human rights organisations are also denied access to the refugees.
According to human rights activists concerned with the Sudanese refugee problem in Egypt, and the Sudanese refugees themselves, the Egyptian authorities have delegated determination of refugee status to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). However, the UNHCR has often complained that they do not have full access to the Sudanese refugees in detention centres and prisons in the country. "Our first major concern is that there are unconfirmed reports that five or six of the Sudanese refugees who were deported from Israel were involuntarily returned to Sudan without any proper review process by the UNHCR," Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch Joe Stork told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"Our second concern is the whereabouts and the living conditions of the remaining refugees. It is assumed that they are being detained in some prison," Stork added.
The UNHCR is currently investigating this case and has openly declared that some of them clearly deserve recognition as asylum-seekers. The Israeli daily Haaretz claims that 23 of the Sudanese refugees deported from Israel had requested permission to be recognised as asylum- seekers. The Israelis, on the other hand, claim that Egypt has broken its pledge not to send back the refugees. Indeed, the Israeli press hinted that the Knesset is considering deporting any future Sudanese refugees to Kenya, instead of Egypt.
In a separate but related development eight Eritrean nationals were caught trying to cross the Suez Canal near Ismailia into Sinai last month and were promptly detained. They were ostensibly trying to sneak into Israel. Two Sudanese nationals, reportedly from Darfur, were also seized upon by police as they allegedly tried to slip into Israel through the official Rafah border crossing point. The Israeli authorities claim that 2,800 people, mostly Sudanese and East Africans from the Horn of Africa region, have entered Israel illegally through its borders with Egypt.
Hundreds of Sudanese work in the seaside tourist resorts of Sinai. It is assumed that many of them favour Sinai because of its proximity to Israel. Furthermore, reports are filtering through that human trafficking rings are actively operating in the peninsula. An Egyptian human trafficker was reportedly detained by the Egyptian authorities in connection with the detention of the Eritreans. The problem is that these reports are unsubstantiated and unconfirmed by the authorities who maintain silence on this issue, which is regarded with utmost importance as a vital national security concern.
It is difficult to ascertain whether escaping the mass killings and ethnic cleansing in Darfur has exacerbated the exodus of Sudanese refugees from Egypt to Israel. However, what is clear is that the Egyptian authorities are tightening security in Sinai making it increasingly difficult for the human trafficking rings to smuggle Sudanese and other Africans across the border from Egypt into Israel. Moreover, the pressure on the Sudanese to integrate in Egyptian society is being stepped up. Fewer Sudanese are willing to take the risk of escaping Egypt to Israel. The widely-publicised cases of those who are caught trying to flee the country and subsequent news blackout about their whereabouts have prompted a wave of terror among the Sudanese refugees in Egypt.
"The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Israel and Egypt are party, stipulates that the refugees must not be forcibly repatriated to their countries of origin," Mike Kagan, associate professor of law at the American University in Cairo, told the Weekly. He pointed out that most of the refugees are in a sorry state. "The traumatised refugees should be rehabilitated and provided with legal, financial, medical and material assistance," Barbara Harrell-Bond, distinguished adjunct professor of forced migration at the AUC, concurred.
"We are extremely worried by Egypt's failure to account for these people. The entire incident reveals Egypt and Israel's shared disregard for the plight of the Sudanese fleeing Darfur," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, concluded.
The Sudanese refugees adamantly refuse to return to Sudan. The Sudanese authorities have issued warnings that the refugees "implement Zionist agendas against Sudan". Obviously, the refugees are being used as pawns in a wider political game that they have little control over. In September, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry urged the Egyptian authorities to "penalise Sudanese refugees trying to infiltrate through Egypt into Israel".