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Israel Deports 50 Sudanese Refugees to Egypt, Closes Its Borders

Israel is closing its borders to refugees who have been streaming in from war-torn Sudan via Egypt. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, the move has drawn angry reaction from refugee rights activists in Israel.

Israel has decided to turn away Sudanese refugees, including those fleeing the fighting in the western Darfur region. The Israeli government fears that the steady stream of migrants will soon become a flood. As a first step, Israel has expelled nearly 50 who entered Israel illegally through Egypt's Sinai desert.

Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin says those expelled were migrants seeking work and not refugees.

"Together with the refugees, we now have an influx of illegal, economic migrants. Israel does not accept illegal, economic migrants," Eisen said. "We stop our borders against this. We have laws against this."

Some 2,800 Sudanese have entered Israel illegally over the past few years, including nearly 500 who fled Darfur. Egypt had accepted the refugees, but many of them found life in Egypt difficult. In December 2005, Egyptian riot police cleared a refugee tent camp in central Cairo, killing nearly 30 people.

Eisin says refugees from Darfur who are already in Israel will be treated properly.

"There are refugees here from Darfur, and they are going to be treated in accordance with international law," Eisen said. "These are people who have fled for their lives, and Israel will accommodate them, will take care of them as they are being taken care of all around the world."

Israel's decision to close its borders to additional Sudanese refugees has brought angry reaction from Israeli refugee rights activists like Eitan Schwartz. He says, "Remember the Holocaust."

"What we really want Israel to do is take in these people, embrace them, and grant asylum at least to some of them because something very similar happened to us 60 years ago, and no other country wanted to give us the asylum we now have the power to grant them," Schwartz said.

Schwartz says that by closing its borders, Israel is subjecting the refugees to mistreatment by Egyptian authorities. Sudanese who made it to Israel say many refugees have been beaten in Egypt and some have been shot and killed by Egyptian police as they smuggled themselves over the border into Israel.