JERUSALEM -- Israel said yesterday it will no longer allow refugees from Darfur to stay after they sneak across the border from Egypt, drawing criticism from those who say the Jewish state is morally obliged to offer sanctuary to people fleeing mass murder.
Israel has been grappling for months over how to deal with the swelling numbers of Africans, including some from Darfur, who have been crossing the porous desert border.
The number of migrants has shot up to as many as 50 a day, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, apparently as word of job opportunities in Israel has spread. The rise has led to concerns that the country could face a flood of African refugees if it doesn't take a harsher stand on asylum seekers.
But Israel has not turned back refugees from Darfur until now, and last month Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said a limited number would even be allowed to remain in Israel. Yesterday, a government spokesman said all new asylum seekers would be sent back to Egypt, with no exception.
"The policy of returning back anyone who enters Israel illegally will pertain to everyone, including those from Darfur," spokesman David Baker said. He offered no explanation for the change.
Overnight, Israel returned 48 Africans to Egypt. An Israeli government official said Egypt had guaranteed that any Darfur refugees would not be forced to return to Sudan. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release that information to the press.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters yesterday that Egypt would accept the refugees for "very pressing humanitarian reasons" but that this type of transfer "would not be repeated again."
Fighting between progovernment militias and rebels in Darfur has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million since February 2003.
Most of the displaced people remain in Darfur, but the UN estimates that 236,000 have fled across the border to neighboring Chad, where they live in camps. Tens of thousands of others have sought sanctuary in Egypt, which is ill-equipped to provide them with jobs and social services.
About 400 of the Darfurians who reached Egypt have driven and trekked through desert sands to cross the unfenced frontier with Israel, according to the refugees' advocates in Israel.
Israel's response to the unexpected arrivals has been mixed. Threats to expel them have clashed with sentiments inspired by the memory of Jews seeking sanctuary from the Nazis before and during World War II and being turned away. Some volunteers have helped migrants find jobs and housing.
Eytan Schwartz, an advocate for Darfur refugees in Israel, objected to any ban on the asylum seekers. "The state of Israel has to show compassion for refugees after the Jewish people was subject to persecution throughout its history," he said.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said in a statement that it is, "Israel's moral and legal obligation to accept any refugees or asylum seekers facing life-threatening danger or infringements on their freedom."
But Ephraim Zuroff of the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center said the Jewish people could not be expected to right every wrong just because of its past.
"Israel can't throw open the gates and allow unlimited access for people who are basically economic refugees," Zuroff said.
The Darfurians found sanctuary from the killings in Sudan by fleeing to Egypt, he said, but their arrival in Israel "was motivated primarily by the difficult living conditions and bleak economic prospects in that country."
That the refugees are from Sudan further complicates the matter, because Israeli law denies asylum to anyone from an enemy state. Sudan's Muslim government is hostile to Israel and has no diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
Although the case of the Darfur refugees is unusual, the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin set a precedent in 1977 when he offered asylum to nearly 400 Vietnamese boat people.
Israel estimates that 2,800 people have entered the country illegally through Egypt's Sinai desert in recent years. Nearly all are from Africa, including 1,160 from Sudan. Many spent months or years in Egypt before entering Israel.
Israel has repeatedly urged Egypt to step up its surveillance of the border to prevent the illegal flow of goods and people.
Egypt has responded by beefing up its efforts recently, with almost daily reports of African refugees being arrested before entering Israel.