Lessons from South Sudan, for those rushing to deport Eritrean refugees

Since young Abiy Ahmed became prime minister of Ethiopia in April, he has released thousands of political prisoners and removed the state of emergency and media censorship.

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October 1, 2018 22:32
4 minute read.
Lessons from South Sudan, for those rushing to deport Eritrean refugees

A boy takes part in a protest against the Israeli government's plan to deport African migrants, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 24, 2018.. (photo credit: REUTERS/CORINNA KERN)

 
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Every other day brings another burst of good news from East Africa. The region experiences solid growth rates of 5.9%; high inflation is decreasing and industrialization is on the rise. Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya enjoy a particularly good momentum and celebrate as large investments are made by China and Saudi Arabia; global brands, from Coca-Cola to Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, begin producing in the region.
                
The region had also won some positive media coverage for its politics. Since young Abiy Ahmed became prime minister of Ethiopia in April, he has released thousands of political prisoners and removed the state of emergency and media censorship. He has also made peace with Eritrea by agreeing to a territorial compromise over which the two countries have bitterly fought.              

The war that was ended had been the reason – or the pretext – for Eritrea’s infamous indefinite inscription. That military service was used to enable a cruel system of forced labor which, along with President Afwerki’s harsh dictatorship, had served to grant refugee status to almost half a million Eritreans worldwide (second only to Syria in the global share of people seeking asylum).
                  
Recent developments in Eritrea and Ethiopia have seized the attention of the international community. New army recruits are told they will no longer serve more than 18 months, which makes some host countries expect that Eritrean refugees may now be able to go back home. One of them is Israel, where about 26,500 Eritreans have lived for the past five to ten years and who renew their visas every few months under the contentious status of “infiltrators.”                   

There is no better future for refugees than to be able to return home, once it is safe. However, that is not yet the case. The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warns that the combination of unchanged conditions inside Eritrea and open borders has led to a stark increase in refugee numbers. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the average daily arrival rate of Eritrean refugees into Ethiopia has increased more than fourfold. Similarly, the Israeli National Security Council warns that Eritrea remains unstable.                   

ABOVE ALL, the Israeli government should learn from its own tragic past impetuosity.                   

In 2011 the new state of South Sudan became independent, with the hope of bringing Africa’s longest civil war to an end. Just one year later, the Israeli government forcibly deported almost 1,500 South Sudanese refugees. It had rushed to do so, breaking up small and robust communities, separating families and overlooking reports from the UN and human rights NGOs and testimonies of South Sudanese returnees about severe human rights violations that persisted in the country.                   

Just 18 months later, South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar, was accused by President Salva Kiir of trying to stage a coup d’etat. Machar fled to join opposition armed forces, accusing Kiir of abusing his powers in the new democracy. A deadly civil war broke out.
                  
Since then, the United States, United Kingdom and Norway – commonly referred to as the “Troika” that supported South Sudan’s push for independence in 2011 – rush to “express their concern” with every clash between ethnic and interest groups that fight over resources and political dominance.                   

International and regional powers have pressured the sides into numerous ceasefire agreements, which never lasted long.The peace agreement that was signed in 2015 had split the opposition and lead to increased bloodshed. Another power sharing agreement came into effect last August, but didn’t bring stability to the country. The most recent ceasefire was signed on September 12; it lasted just under one week.                   


SIX MILLION people in the heart of the country face starvation, according to the aid organization CARE. Four million people are displaced, most of them finding asylum in SudantothenorthorinUgandato the south. The UN had sent a force of over 10,000 peace keepers, which endured numerous hits and casualties as well. Almost 20,000 “child soldiers” were recruited, women were raped in very high numbers and 383,000 people lost their lives, according to the latest comprehensive study funded by the US State Department. More than 50% of these were caused directly by vio- lence, while the rest died from the spread of diseases, limited access to food and other implications of war.           

With no end in sight ,the recently published numbers should at least give a voice and a place in history for those who died and suffered so much in recent years. Those voice should haunt the nights of the architects of war and the spoilers of peace. They should be heard in meeting rooms of the countless aid agencies that are failing to meet the most basic humanitarian needs. They should rattle the walls of the impotent UN Security Council and of the governments that arm the different factions in the conflict.                                            

But they should also be heard in Israel. Almost 5% of South Sudan’s population has been lost in the civil war since 2013. According to Dr. Rami Gudovitch – co-director of the project “Come True”, which provides education to South Sudanese children in Uganda after being deported from Israel – there is a similar rate of casualties among those deported from Israel.

There are 383,000 tragic lessons to be drawn from that war. They must be internalized by anyone rushing to deport Eritreans back to their country,based on only a few preliminary and inconclusive reports.

The writer is a human rights activist and a PhD candidate in the field of migration.

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