In what appears to be the first step in carrying out the deportation of Israel’s South Sudanese migrant population, Interior Ministry officers arrested eight of the country’s natives on Sunday morning.

The arrests came in spite of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority’s statement last week that they would follow a court recommendation to give the migrants a week to turn themselves in to immigration authorities, so as to avoid the arrests of families.

In the announcement on Sunday, PIBA said that immigration officials had arrested 25 people illegally residing in Israel, most of them from Africa. According to PIBA, those arrested include eight citizens of South Sudan, three from Thailand, three Nigerians, three Sri Lankans, two Ghanaians, two Ivorians, two Romanians and two minors – one from Moldova and one from Gambia.

All of the South Sudanese were arrested in Eilat, PIBA confirmed Sunday.

Also Sunday, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation approved increasing the penalties for those caught employing, sheltering or assisting illegal migrants in Israel. The bill, which will be brought to a preliminary vote in the Knesset later this week, would raise the current jail sentence from two years to five and would allow for a NIS 5 million fine for those found to be aiding migrants.

Last Thursday, the Jerusalem District Court rejected a petition by human rights groups opposed to the migrants’ expulsion, saying that the NGOs did not provide evidence that the South Sudanese would be in physical danger if they were returned to their home country.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai on Thursday praised the court’s ruling, calling it “the first step in the expulsion of all the ‘infiltrators’ [in Israel].”

Moses Philemon, a South Sudanese community organizer in Eilat, said that people were arrested early Sunday morning while leaving for work at the city’s hotels or while heading to the store.

Philemon said that he and others in the South Sudanese community in Eilat had understood that they had a week to prepare themselves for the return and that the arrests came as a surprise.

“Of course people are afraid and they don’t know what to do,” Philemon said, adding that he doesn’t know if people have decided to go into hiding to avoid the immigration authorities.

He said that he believes people are willing to go back to South Sudan and just need a little more time to prepare themselves, and said he had considered inviting his countrymen to the South Sudan community center in Eilat where the arrests could be carried out in an organized way, but said he wasn’t sure if people would be in favor of it.

While there are no exact numbers on the South Sudanese population in Israel, the government believes it is anywhere between 1,500 and 2,500, while South Sudanese residents and activists put the number closer to 700-800 out of the over 60,000 African migrants in Israel.

Sunday’s arrests appear to constitute the first step in the enforcement of a decision announced in January by the Interior Ministry, which gave South Sudanese migrants until April 1 to leave Israel willingly or face deportation. The announcement also offered a stipend of 1,000 euros to each adult who left willingly.

Hours after the arrests were announced on Sunday, hundreds of African migrants, most of them from Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan, marched in Tel Aviv against what organizers said was racism and the mistreatment of asylum-seekers and refugees in Israel.

Planned by the Bnai Darfur (“sons of Darfur”) organization, the protest was one of the largest of its kind planned by members of the African migrant community.

Chanting “Sudanese are not cancer” and “refugee rights now,” the marchers made their way from Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv to the offices of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees on Hashmonaim Street. At the UNHCR offices, the protesters passed on a letter asking for the Israeli government to recognize them as refugees and not migrant workers.

One of the organizers, 24-yearold Darfur native Adam Bashar, said that the protest was held to call for “the UN to take the responsibility over the refugees because the Israeli government is failing to do so.”

Bashar, who has lived in Israel for seven years, said such responsibilities included ensuring that they examine asylum claims, give them refugee status and allow them access to healthcare and education.

While the crowd was mainly from Darfur and Sudan, one South Sudanese asylum-seeker, Andrew Akolawin, watched from outside the UNHCR office with a distraught look on his face. Akolawin said he is leaving later this week to return to South Sudan with his four kids, after living in Israel for five years.

Akolawin said the problem isn’t necessarily having to return to South Sudan, rather the way the return is being carried out.

“They just pushed us out, many of us are still owed money by our employers and we are not ready to leave. We came here for shelter and this place has become something else,” he said.

A resident of the Shapira neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, 34-year-old Akolawin said he will return to South Sudan with a bitter taste in his mouth towards Israel and expressed his hope that his nascent homeland will reconsider its ties to Israel.

“It’s so hard to see it end like this. I think now, coming to Israel was the stupidest thing I ever did in my life.”

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