Israel sent approximately 50 African migrants, many reported to be Sudanese refugees from war-torn Darfur, back across the border to Egypt late on Saturday night, a move that drew the condemnation of Israeli human rights advocates when it became known on Sunday.
The migrants had illegally crossed the Israeli-Egyptian border earlier Saturday and were sent back the same day, as Israel instituted a new policy of instantly deporting such illegal migrants, regardless of their status, an Israeli government spokesman said.
The spokesman, David Baker, announced that Israel was prepared to absorb the 500 refugees from Darfur already in Israel, whose status had been the subject of growing debate here. But from now on, he said, Israel would send back all illegal migrants crossing the border from the Egyptian Sinai, regardless of their status or origins, under a recent agreement with the Egyptian authorities.
About 2,500 African asylum seekers have entered Israel over the past two years. Most are considered economic migrants and face deportation. But they include the 500 from Darfur, now considered refugees, and about 900 others from elsewhere in Sudan, according to the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli advocacy organization.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reached an understanding with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak almost two months ago that the illegal migrants would be returned.
An Israeli human rights group, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, issued a statement expressing its "strong" condemnation of the government's decision "to deport African refugees and asylum seekers to Egypt without following the internationally recognized procedures for determining whether they are refugees."
Baker and other officials could not immediately confirm whether any of the migrants returned on Saturday were refugees from Darfur, but the Web site of the newspaper Haaretz cited unidentified military officials saying the majority were.
Previous Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel have complained of maltreatment in Egypt and have said they feared that if they were deported the Egyptians would send them back to Sudan, a country hostile to Israel. Government officials said Israel had received commitments from the Egyptians that refugees from Darfur would not be sent back to Sudan.
Hotline for Migrant Workers spokesman Romm Lewkowicz accused Israel of violating a provision of the Geneva Conventions regarding obligations toward refugees from an enemy state. He said it was Israel that had promoted the clause after World War II, remembering that German Jewish refugees had been sheltered in Britain.
This month, 63 members of the 120-seat Parliament signed a petition initiated by student activists opposing the refugees' deportation. The document said in part, "The refugees need protection and sanctuary, and the Jewish people's history, as well as the values of democracy and humanity, pose a moral imperative for us to give them that shelter."
Aliza Olmert, the wife of the Israeli prime minister, has also expressed sympathy for the refugees and became active on their behalf.