Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH-Boston. The question of who gets to immigrate to Israel and why has been a thorny one since the country's founding 65 years ago. Now it's flaring up again amid reports that Israel has begun quietly repatriating immigrants from Sudan. Israel says many Africans have come to the country illegally for economic reasons, but human rights advocates say the Sudanese are political refugees whose lives could be at risk if they're sent home. Reporter Daniel Estrin is following the story from Jerusalem. Now I understand Israel says all of the Sudanese who have gone home have done so voluntarily, but others say many of them have essentially been coerced, so what's the truth?

Daniel Estrin: Well, it's a little bit of both really, Marco. In the past eight months there's been a new way that Israel has been treating migrants. At first, when they started coming here, about six years ago, Israel tolerated them. They picked them up at the border when they crossed into Israel from Egypt, and shipped them on a bus to Tel Aviv and dropped them off there. Now they're really rounding up any new migrants and putting them in jail. And then they tell them that, you have a choice. We can keep you in jail for many years while we process your applications for refugee status, or you can go home. And in the last couple of months a lot of people have been opting to go home. So while Israel says they are going on their own volition, migrants' advocates say, well, if you're stuck in jail and your situation is desparate, you might feel that you have no other choice.

Werman: I gather a lot of migrants from Africa, from Sudan, have settled in neighborhoods that are rather squalid, but how many immigrants are in jail?

Estrin: About 2,500 migrants are now estimated to be in Israeli detention centers, and over the past eight years as many as 60,000 migrants, mostly Sudanese and Eritreans, have come across the border from Egypt into Israel.

Werman: So why does Israel want to send them home?

Estrin: Well, it's a really tricky situation. Israel says that these migrants are a burden. Israel is a small country and can't handle their numbers. Another reason which has been given is that these African migrants threaten the Jewish character of the state of Israel. On the other hand, a lot of Israeli advocates of the migrants say, you know, we have a moral obligation to take care of these migrants. Our grandfathers, grandmothers were refugees themselves fleeing the Holocaust and found their new homes here.

Werman: One activist for the migrants, an Israeli, says these Sudanese, if they get expelled, it's almost certainly going to be death for them when they get home. Why would they face such hostility from their government?

Estrin: Well, Israel and Sudan are technically at war with each other. They're considered hostile countries. Sudan is ruled by Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the international criminal court on charges of genocide, and is an Islamist ruler who says that Israel is a mortal enemy. In Sudanese passports supposedly it says, the bearer of this passport has the right to go anywhere in the world except for Israel. So when Sudanese are returning to their homelands and they're found to be coming from Israel, according to migrants and activists here, they say that that can get them into big trouble there.

Werman: So while reporting this story, Daniel, I'm wondering, did you meet any Sudanese migrants who, you know, how are they feeling right now? It's got to be pretty tense for them.

Estrin: They are really feeling tense. I spoke to one from the Darfur region of Sudan. He's in his early 20s, he now works in a hotel in downtown Tel Aviv. He speaks really great English, really eloquent, and he said that he personally knows about 70 people who have gone back to Sudan. He says he's heard that a lot of them were detained at the airport in Khartoum when they arrived. He said he heard that Sudanese authorities confiscated a lot of their property, their documents, and he said that his best friend was killed shortly after he arrived. The way he put it to me, he said, you know, my best friend preferred to die in his own country with dignity instead of being humiliated in Israel for the sort of in-limbo condition that they are in.

Werman: Such a tough and complex situation. Reporter Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Thank you very much.

Estrin: You're welcome.