Safety remains in question for migrants back in Sudan

Israeli humanitarian organizations, aid professionals question how "voluntary" the repatriation of 150 migrants really was.

311_African migrants (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
311_African migrants
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Monday night’s late-night flight carrying 150 Sudanese migrants from Israel back to Africa for repatriation in southern Sudan has been received with mixed responses by humanitarian organizations in Israel.
The Jerusalem Post has learned that the group made it safely to Sudan, but among migrant aid professionals in Israel, concern lingers for their long-term safety and questions arise regarding how “voluntary” their repatriation really was.

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Malcolm Hedding, executive director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, confirmed that his daughter, Charmaine Hedding, was the guiding spirit behind the initiative to repatriate the Sudanese migrants. The younger Hedding, who represents the Christian relief organization Operation Blessing in Israel, was on the plane with the Sudanese nationals and escorted them to the absorption center in Juba, near the Ugandan border.
“Charmaine has been involved in these efforts for quite some time and has escorted smaller groups back to Sudan several times in the last couple of years,” her father said.
“She is very concerned for the well-being of the people and the future of Africa.”
Hedding said the operation was entirely humanitarian in nature and that all repatriation efforts were coordinated with the autonomous government in southern Sudan.
“I have been at the airport to see off some of the previous groups and I can tell you that they all went back entirely of their own volition. You only have to see the tears of joy in their eyes at the prospect of going home to realize that their desire is sincere and not the product of prodding or coercion,” he said.
Others, however, are not convinced.
Yohannes Bayu, director of the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv, himself a recognized refugee and a longtime community activist, said that while the choice to return to Sudan may have been a conscious choice, it was not made freely.
“For many of the refugees, returning to Sudan is the lesser of two evils. I spoke to all of the returning migrants before they left. They said that ultimately the reason they returned was because it is better to die there than to die here.
“The Israeli government may not have forced them to go, but their treatment and policies made it impossible for them to stay,” said Bayu. “There was one man on the flight who suffers from a chronic disease. For him to go back to Sudan is a return to certain death, but he figured he would meet the same fate here, so it was better for him to go back.”
Bayu also criticized the timing of the flight, three weeks ahead of a national referendum that will likely determine whether Sudan will enjoy long-awaited peace, or fall back to civil war.

“The world is watching to see what will happen, whether all-out peace or all-out war. Why couldn’t Israel wait? It is inhumane and morally unacceptable. If there is war, they will be killed or forced to run away again,” Bayu said.
Hedding said that the date was meaningless and that the returning migrants’ safety was assured.
“People don’t want to wait to go home and politics don’t enter their considerations.
Telling them to wait until after the referendum is ridiculous,” he said.
He also said that any effort to describe the migrants’ decision to return as anything but entirely voluntary was mistaken.
“As was correctly noted in the press, the United Nations interviewed every one of the returning migrants and made sure that they were making the choice to go back of their own free will," he said.