(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
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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
“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.
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
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.
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
“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
“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.