'South Sudanese in Israel no longer refugees'

S. Sudanese child slave turned refugee turned Israel advocate says S.Sudanese should be given more time to return home.

Simon Deng 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Simon Deng 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Now that they have their own state, South Sudanese can no longer be considered refugees and should prepare for return to their country in the near future, a prominent South Sudanese activist and refugee said on Thursday.
Visiting Israel on what he called a privately funded mission to “rescue the situation” that faces Southern Sudanese following a government decision in late January to begin deporting them starting April 1, Simon Deng described the changes that independence has brought to the South Sudanese diaspora, during an interview Thursday in a small hotel off Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv.
“The country is independent so the refugee card is gone in my opinion, but when they came here they were refugees,” Deng said.
Deng, who met with members of Israel’s South Sudanese community as well as the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and the Foreign Ministry during his four-day visit, also rejected a claim made by many in the South Sudanese community of Israel that they should not be returned yet or should be given asylum because of the dire living standards and lack of clean water and health services in South Sudan.
“We became refugees not because of the water or because there was no food,” said Deng. “We became refugees because of the war.
I disagree with that, I respect peoples’ opinions but let’s be realistic and practical.”
He did however describe South Sudan as a child, a young country that cannot be expected to hit the ground running after only eight months of independence.
On January 31, the Interior Ministry announced that all South Sudanese in Israel would no longer be considered refugees due to the founding of their state, and would have until April 1 to leave or face forced deportation.
According to the UNHCR, around 60 South Sudanese have agreed to voluntarily return before April 1, out of a population that South Sudanese number at around 700 and the Interior Ministry says is more than 3,000 strong. The Interior Ministry said last week that no South Sudanese have tried to appeal their deportation or apply for refugee status since it announced the decision.
While he agrees with the Israeli decision that South Sudanese must return home now that they have an independent country, he believes, like nearly all members of the community in Israel that the return must be more organized and gradual, and the population receive more time to prepare to leave.
When asked how he thinks the return should be carried out, Deng suggested the government give South Sudanese around 12 months to return, giving them a transition period to prepare their children psychologically for moving to South Sudan, a country where their children have never before set foot.
That said, he rebuked an oft-repeated claim in the South Sudanese community that the forced deportations could harm relations between the two countries, saying that the government in Juba does not care about the small community in Israel and that “they have too many problems on their table right now.”
Deng has a bizarre resume to go along with a tragic life story.
At nine years old he was kidnapped and forced into domestic slavery for a family in north Sudan, where he was tortured and “did the work of donkeys,” he said.
When he was 12, he was rescued by a group of Shilluk tribesmen who recognized him as one of their own and brought him back to South Sudan. He said he later became a national Sudanese swimming champion in the 1980s, before fleeing to the US, where he has lived since 1989. In the US he became a full-time lifeguard at Coney Island, a job he maintains, when he is not on speaking tours or visiting relatives in South Sudan. Tall and broad-shouldered with a line of traditional Shilluk tribal markings on his forehead, it is safe to assume he does not resemble the average Coney Island lifeguard.
Today, aged 53, he could be considered the Southern Sudanese equivalent of “professional Jews;” those who work in Israel advocacy and travel widely to support causes close to the hearts of the global Jewish community.
Deng carries a business card that says “Human Rights Activist” and advertises the “Sudan Freedom Walk,” an anti-slavery and genocide march in which he participated three times between 2006 and 2007 from New York to Washington, later from Brussels to The Hague, and finally a walk held in Chicago.
Deng has visited Israel five times and has worked for the cause of Israel advocacy.
Among other engagements, he addressed the “Durban Watch Conference” on behalf of pro-Israel organization Stand With Us in 2011.
In his remarks he called the United Nations “a tool against Israel” and spoke of how the body’s focus on Israel and the “so-called Palestinian refugees” has prevented the world from focusing on the issue of Arab racism against black Africans.
In conversation he also appears to speak in hasbaratinted (pro-Israel diplomacy) language, referring to the UN as the “United do nothing Nations” and talking of how claims of Israeli apartheid are ridiculous when compared to racism in Iran or the treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Deng said that independence has not changed the cause for activists like himself, saying that he still spends much of the year traveling to South Sudan to help with development issues.
The message of his short trip to Israel seems easily summed up by a single statement made Thursday, when he called on the government to carry out a kinder, gentler series of deportations.
“Israel should not send them off with anger, with handcuffs. A friend has to listen to a friend.”