A plane carrying a group of 123 South Sudanese migrants took off from Ben-Gurion Airport late Sunday night on its way to Juba. It was the first such flight to leave Israel as part of "Operation Going Home," in which authorities plan to deport South Sudanese in Israel.
The South Sudanese men, women, and children were processed for their flights earlier behind mounds of suitcases inside Ben-Gurion Airport’s Terminal 1. They were joined on the charter flight by four members of a South Sudan diplomatic delegation that came to Israel last Thursday to oversee the administration of the deportations and meet with local members of the South Sudanese community in Israel.
Earlier on Sunday, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said the deportation of the 700- 1,500 South Sudanese in Israel barely scratches the surface of solving the migrant problem facing the country.
Yishai said the real problem “is with Eritrea that has 30,000 people [in Israel] and north Sudan with 15,000,” adding that he hopes “that the legal obstacles to this will be lifted soon and we can expel them as well.”
Yishai admitted that the South Sudanese make up only a “drop within a drop” of the 60,000 or so African migrants in Israel, but added that deporting them is a “national interest” and that if he “has to chose between the interests of Israel and the interests of the Sudanese, I will choose Israel.”
Currently Israel cannot legally deport migrants from Sudan, an enemy state where they would stand to face persecution upon return, or Eritreans, who are citizens of a police state and would potentially be in grave danger if sent back. As a result, both groups are granted group protection status and cannot be deported, giving them de-facto refugee status without the rights that refugee status affords.
Gidon Cohen, the head of the encouragement of willful repatriation department of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority, said that each South Sudanese adult received $1,300 in cash, with an additional $500 for each minor traveling with them. They were also given vaccines against diseases common to Sub-Saharan Africa.
Cohen said each passenger was allowed to carry 30kg. of luggage. Many of the suitcases clogging up the entry to Terminal 1 were left by families who had exceeded their luggage limit, and Cohen said he had no idea if the luggage would be shipped to them or remain behind in Israel.
The first leg of the deportation of the South Sudanese community of Israel began early Sunday morning, when a bus full of South Sudanese left Eilat to make its way to the airport. It was followed by a bus leaving Arad at 9 a.m., while the rest of the deportees left from the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station at midday.
Escorted by friends and trailed by cameramen and reporters, dozens of South Sudanese men, women, and children filled into buses on the seventh floor of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. As they loaded their bags onto the bus in the midday sun, the migrants described a mixture of feelings. While many spoke of anger towards the anti-migrant atmosphere in Israel and the arrests that accompanied the deportations, others spoke of relief that the deportation saga is coming to an end and happiness about finally returning to their homeland, a new country that did not exist when they fled years earlier.
Andrew Akolawine smiled on the pavement at the bus station, saying “I’ve been here for five years and I’m happy to be going back. You know in any circle, you must end at the point where you start. I started there [South Sudan] and I will finish there, this is enough.”
Akolawine, a father of four, spoke warmly of the Israeli friends he’d made over his years in the country, but added that recent anti-migrant statements by Israeli politicians had soured his opinion of Israel.
Still, he cracked, “I’m very proud that I am part of a people Israel thinks are so important that they don’t talk about the Palestinians anymore, just us.”
One South Sudanese man facing eviction next week came to bid farewell to some of his friends, and sounded far more bitter towards the deportations.
“I need to say to Israel thank you, you don’t want any black people only whites.
When I go back to there, maybe I’ll work in the interior ministry and I will remember well what was done to us.”
He added “I remember growing up reading the Bible thinking Israel is people who help each other... we ran to Israel and we realized that it’s not Israel any longer, it’s just like Russia, Iraq, Egypt.”
Orit Marom of the Assaf NGO, which assists African migrants, called Sunday “a day of shame,” saying that Israel’s Interior Ministry “has trampled on the honor of great friends of Israel, the South Sudanese.” Marom added “the South Sudanese, unlike Eli Yishai, have a big heart and they forgive him.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addressed the deportations during Sunday’s cabinet meeting, saying “today the government will begin the operation to repatriate illegal work infiltrators to their countries of origin. We will do this is an orderly and dignified manner.”
Netanyahu also spoke of the government’s efforts to stop the entry of further illegal migrants by finishing construction of the border fence, finishing detention facilities for illegal migrants and using diplomatic steps to find third countries to take in African asylum seekers.
On June 7, the Jerusalem District Court rejected a petition by human rights groups opposed to the deportation of South Sudanese, saying the NGOs did not prove that the South Sudanese would be in physical danger if they were returned home. Though assurances were made that the migrants would be given a week to prepare for deportation, three days later immigration officials began arresting South Sudanese across the country.
The arrests follow a decision announced in January by the Interior Ministry, which gave South Sudanese until April 1 to leave Israel willingly or face deportation.