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Seven refugees from Sudan reach Negev on foot

Ketziot Prison, one of the largest IDF detention centers for Palestinian security prisoners located along the Egyptian border, has recently received seven unexpected visitors.
Yaakov Katz

The prison, which has some 1,500 Palestinian detainees locked up, is currently holding seven Sudanese nationals who illegally crossed the border with Egypt into Israel after walking by foot from their villages in the country's war-torn Darfur region.

Five of the prisoners arrived in Israel close to two months ago, and another two were brought to the jail last week. The seven say they fled their homes fearing for their lives after civil war and a humanitarian crisis struck their homeland. "We ran away since we were afraid we would get killed," said Aaron, one of the prisoners.

Aaron, in his late twenties, said that his sister and two of his brothers were gunned down by terrorists shortly before his village was demolished. Together with four of his friends, he set out in search of a place of sanctuary, eventually arriving in Israel.

"We are happy that we got here," another of the prisoners added. "Israel is a free country and we hope that we will be able to stay."

The 15-month conflict in the Darfur region has reportedly claimed the lives of 30,000 people, driven more than one million people from their homes to other parts of Sudan, and forced some 200,000 to flee to Chad.

Prison officials admit that the Sudanese are a bit out of place in the high-security IDF jail, but that under the current conditions in Israeli prisons, no one is willing to take them.

"We are holding seven of them," base commander Lt.-Col Yuri Bernstein said. "They are in a place they shouldn't be, but they get what they need." Bernstein said that the crowded Ketziot Prison is not the place for the Sudanese, and that they should be held by the Prisons Service or the Immigration Police.

"There really is no difference between them and foreign workers or prostitutes who illegally cross the border and enter Israel," he said. "There are several offices working on their behalf, including the Foreign Ministry, and we want to move them to the Prisons Service or to the Immigration Police, but they won't take them."

Bernstein said that the option that officials are now checking is that of sending the detainees back to Egypt, which, according to international refugee accords, is considered the first country of asylum since the seven first entered Egypt prior to entering Israel.

Officials said that Israeli law states that the Sudanese would not be allowed to remain here since the country does not grant political asylum to citizens of an enemy country. Returning to Sudan is also impossible since they would most probably be shot upon arrival, if it were discovered that they had resided in Israel.

"They have been registered by us," said Uriel Masad, spokesman for the International Red Cross in Israel. "Since they come from a country that does not have representation in Israel, they fall under our jurisdiction."

For now, Masad said, all the Red Cross can do is to periodically remind Israeli authorities not to return the Sudanese to their country of origin, in addition to updating the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the detainee's conditions.

"They are concerned what will be with them," Bernstein said. "They came in search of asylum since they say that there is a war between blacks and Muslims in Sudan, and they would have been killed had they stayed there."

Bernstein said that the detainees are treated no differently than the Palestinian prisoners and receive all of their rights. The prisoners, however, tell a different story.

"They don't treat us as well as they treat the Palestinians," one of the prisoners said. "But we are happy to be here since back in Sudan we would have been killed."

Unlike the Palestinian prisoners, the Sudanese do not have a bathroom or shower in their holding compound. Upon arrival, they were initially kept inside solitary cells 24 hours a day. They said that the conditions took a turn for the better and that they were allowed to exit their cells and lounge in the open air after the head of Military Police toured the prison and saw the conditions in which they were being held.

"Until the big commander came we were kept in the solitary rooms," Henri said. "He saw us and allowed us to come out."

Bernstein dismissed the Sudanese claims. "They are held in a different compound since they are afraid, and this is the only difference," he said.

"They were initially held in the cells since we thought they would only be here for a short time, but since it appears they will be here for a while, I decided to let them out." (Source: THE JERUSALEM POST)

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