by Alex Wilner

Sudanese refugees have again taken flight.

Having fled the ravages of their home country and become weary of Egyptian security forces, the Sudanese are crossing the Sinai Desert into Israel.  While all mass migrations invite humanitarian crisis, this particular exodus risks lighting political powder kegs.

As Steven Wolfson, director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tel Aviv explains, “Sudan proclaims itself to be at war with Israel.” 

“War” means that any Sudanese national traveling to Israel risks persecution upon his return home. Recently, Sudanese Interior Minister Zubair Bashir Taha reiterated his government’s policy, threatening that Khartoum “will find the appropriate way to deal with those who dared immigrate to Israel.” 

Unlike most other refugee cases even a domestic resolution to the conflicts ravaging Sudan will not safely permit the voluntary repatriation of Israel’s Sudanese population. Until Israeli-Sudanese relations ameliorate, which no one expects anytime soon, the refugees stay put.

To date, UN estimates place seventeen hundred Sudanese refugees in Israel, including several hundred survivors of Darfur’s genocidal violence. The numbers are alarming. Wolfson explains that “nine years ago, fifty refugees registered with the UNHCR in Israel. Three years ago, there were fifty a month. Today, there are fifty cases a day.”

More are certainly on their way. The word on the Sudanese street is that life in Israel isn’t all that bad. 

Over the past months, a few hundred Sudanese were given jobs on kibbutzim and in the hotel industries of Eilat and Jerusalem. Israeli NGOs and university groups have rallied around their cause, opening shelters, finding homes, offering courses, and providing legal, material, and social aid. While Israel did return – under the supervision of the UN and in accordance with agreements reached with Cairo – forty-two non-Darfurian Sudanese back to Egypt in mid-August, a substantial bloc of policy-makers successfully petitioned the government to reverse course. By September, the government agreed, granting refugee status to five hundred Sudanese.

But these promising developments shroud the storm clouds gathering on the horizon. 

There are hundreds of thousands of Sudanese in Egypt. Twelve thousand have been granted asylum, but the vast majority face discriminatory attitudes. While life in Egypt is better than it was in Sudan, things are worsening quickly. 

In December 2005 Egyptian police killed 27 Sudanese participating in a Cairo demonstration. Since then, Human Rights Watch reports cases of Egyptian border guards firing upon, beating, and killing refugees navigating their way through the Sinai. 

As it stands, there is much Canada can do to help deflate the emerging crisis. 

In the long term, Canada must continue assisting international, African, and Arab efforts towards a resolution to Sudan’s conflicts. Tackling the refugee crisis in Israel and Egypt – to say nothing of those afflicting Chad and Kenya – will require first confronting the causes of migration. The process might well take decades, yet Canada’s commitment in providing resources, materiel, and manpower will have the lasting impact of easing the conditions that drives the flight from Sudan. 

In the medium term, Canada, in concert with the UN and other diplomatic powers, must catalyze Sudanese-Israeli dénouement. Though Sudan’s regime has proven itself a pariah unwilling to accommodate international demands and remains highly unlikely to stretch an olive branch out towards Israel, only diplomatic relations will guarantee the safe return of Israel’s Sudanese population.  While pessimists find the prospects of warming Sudanese-Israeli relations fanciful, Arab-Israeli history is replete with unanticipated developments. By fostering bilateral dialogue today, Canada ensures the eventual return of all Sudanese refugees regardless of whether they find themselves in Chad, Egypt, or Israel. 

In the short term, Canada should absorb a number of Sudanese refugees.  Of the quarter million immigrants who come to Canada every year, roughly thirty thousand are refugees. While a majority acquire asylum upon entering Canada, thousands are identified overseas with UNHCR help and resettled with Ottawa’s assistance. In the past, provisions have been made to resettle especially disadvantaged refugee groups. In 2006, for instance, Canada fostered resettlement initiatives for five thousand Bhutanese, three thousand Burmese, and a number of Iraqis.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s next directive, due out in November, should include a similar Sudanese plan. With UNHCR assistance, Ottawa might consider cooperating with Egypt and Israel in formulating a comprehensive multilateral relocation strategy. Precedents already exist. In 2004, Sweden relocated a number of Sudanese refugees directly from Israel. Following Sweden’s lead and propelled by Canada’s initiative, others might do the same.

While resettlement risks creating a “pull factor” spurring further Sudanese migration, done carefully and in concert with other long- and medium-term goals, a refugee and political crisis in the making just might be averted. 

Alex Wilner, a doctoral candidate at Dalhousie University, is the Intern in Security and Defence Policy at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank based in Halifax, NS.