Let Darfurian Refugees in Israel Go

By Kathleen Peratis

Published May 05, 2006, issue of May 05, 2006.
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As thousands, not a few of them Jews, assembled in Washington on Sunday on behalf of the victims of genocide in Darfur, more than a hundred Darfurian refugees languished in jails — in, of all places, Israel.

As of the end of 2005, about 30 Sudanese had escaped persecution and violence in Darfur by fleeing first into Egypt and then, when things became too dangerous there — dozens of Sudanese refugees were killed and hundreds arrested in Cairo in December — into Israel, thanks to the services of Bedouin smugglers and a long and porous border. As remarkable as their hazardous journeys were, they were nothing compared to the torture, rape, summary execution and mass killing they left behind in Darfur.

You may have read about two of them, 16-year-old boys who entered Israel last September and were immediately detained and incarcerated as illegal aliens. They remained in the Tsohar jail in the western Negev for more than six months, until an Israeli NGO that advocates for the most helpless people in Israel, The Hotline for Migrant Workers, convinced the special court reviewing their case that the boys — and a handful of others also charged with violating the Law of Entry to Israel — posed no threat. In March, they were finally released to the custody of Kibbutz Tseelim, where they are working in the fields and learning Hebrew.

“As Jews, as people who were themselves refugees whom no one wanted, we have a special obligation not to look the other way but to take care of those who have fled from the valley of death,” says Kibbutz Tseelim’s Yankele Geffen.

Mind you, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel should not have incarcerated these poor souls in the first place. Asylum seekers who have not broken the law — their means of entry does not count — may not be imprisoned while their claims are being considered. Although all asylum seekers in Israel are detained while their cases are being reviewed by the Israeli Refugee Committee, the government releases them upon notice from the committee that the asylum claim does not merit further investigation.

However, when it comes to refugees from Muslim countries, the committee usually refuses to even interview them. According to the migrant hotline’s Shevy Korzen, this applies not only to all escapees from Darfur, but even to Sudanese who had received refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ office in Egypt. She and other refugee advocates went to Israel’s Interior Ministry to challenge the treatment of the Sudanese — but things only got worse.

Since the beginning of 2006, the number of Sudanese refugees in Israel has risen from 30 to 160. No longer are they being arrested and detained under the Law of Entry to Israel, which provides for judicial review; now it is the Law To Prevent Infiltration they are accused of violating.

The Law To Prevent Infiltration, which does not allow for judicial review, is an old and draconian law applicable to those entering Israel from an “enemy country.” “Enemy country” is not defined, but we all know what it is intended to mean. Those charged under this law are deemed to be enemies of the State of Israel.

The obvious irony is here compounded: The young State of Israel, remembering that the United Kingdom had taken in German Jews during World War II, championed a provision of the Fourth Geneva Convention that requires states to exempt genuine refugees from the measures intended against enemy nationals.

But that was then.

Recent Darfur asylum seeker G.K. is now in Israel. More precisely, he is in an Israeli prison. Last year, the Janjaweed, the murderous militias in Darfur, terrorized his village. The villagers fled in all directions; G.K. has not seen his wife or his eight children since then.

He escaped first to Khartoum, then Cairo, and ultimately, along with six other refugees, including children, to Israel. They were arrested on February 8 and taken to the army detention facility Ktziot in the Negev. In March, G.K. was charged under the Law To Prevent Infiltration and he was moved to Ma’asiyahu prison near Ramle. He has no right to judicial review. Because Israel will not even consider his asylum claim, he has little hope of release.

But someone has to consider his claim, and so a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was dispatched from Geneva to Israel in March — with Israel’s blessing, by the way — to assess the claims of G.K. and, as of last week, 129 others. The representative’s goal is to arrange for asylum in other countries — Israel won’t take any of them — a process that will certainly take months and may well take years. In the meantime, of course, the refugees remain in prison.

On the eve of Pesach, the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University and the migrant hotline — whose letterhead says, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” — filed a High Court petition arguing that the use of the Law To Prevent Infiltration in these cases is a perversion of its intended use. They also claim that Israel’s refusal to consider the asylum claims of the Sudanese refugees is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, as well as a variety of local laws.

The Justice Ministry says it is “working” on amending the law — a process that began five years ago and is not yet complete. Until it is complete, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reports, the matter is in the hands of the High Court.

Those who forget history, Santayana taught, are condemned to repeat it. But what of those who remember history — and insist on inflicting it?

Kathleen Peratis, a partner in the New York law firm Outten & Golden, is a trustee of Human Rights Watch.

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