Gov't financing refugees’ voluntary return to S. Sudan

Exclusive: As 97 more refugees fly to Juba, details revealed of 2-year repatriation program that has returned some 400 S.Sudanese home.

Sudanese refugee rally for independance 311 (photo credit: Ron Friedman)
Sudanese refugee rally for independance 311
(photo credit: Ron Friedman)
“We’ve interviewed all these people. They’re happy to go home. The Israeli government isn’t forcing them,” said William Tall, representative in Israel for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as another planeload of Southern Sudanese refugees flew home Tuesday night at government expense.
Speaking by telephone through a translator at Ben-Gurion Airport before takeoff, Regina, 26, traveling with her one-month-old baby, May, said she was going home after 14 months in Israel “because Southern Sudan is going to be independent, and also because I miss my parents.”
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Ninety-seven refugees were aboard the charter flight headed for Juba, capital of Southern Sudan. All told, some 400 have been flown home in the last 21⁄2 years, said Charmaine Hedding, a leading activist on behalf of the refugees, who initiated the program by securing the cooperation of the Foreign Ministry.
“I have a waiting list of 400 more people. I can't keep up with the demand," said Hedding, who has close ties with the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, which is also involved in the program.
Over the last two years, the government has also financed training courses for the returning refugees in agriculture, primary health care, entrepreneurship and commercial driving. Courses are held at Eilat’s Josephthal Hospital, kibbutzim and other sites in Eilat, Arad and Tel Aviv.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor would not confirm or deny the existence of the repatriation program, but seemed to tip his hand by adding wryly, “We’re in the business of doing, not commenting.”
Until now, this story has been kept almost entirely under wraps by government censorship. Hedding said she was revealing it in detail to The Jerusalem Post “so the truth would come out.”
Many media accounts in the past indicated that the government, which is exploring various ways to drastically reduce the refugee population, was pressuring and even informally bribing Southern Sudanese to go home.
This notion was refuted by both Tall and Hedding.
“We interview all these people to ascertain that they’re going back voluntarily, that they’re making an informed decision, and we haven’t found any cases where they’re being pressured into leaving. The government isn’t always cooperative with the UNHCR, but this time it’s been very cooperative,” said Tall.
Said Hedding: “I’ve been critical of Israel’s asylum policy, or lack thereof, but these Southern Sudanese are desperate for education, to have something to take back with them to their country, and the government is giving it to them. The Foreign Ministry has been amazing in getting the training programs off the ground.”
Southern Sudan’s emerging independence is what made the program of voluntary repatriation possible, Hedding explained. Following last month’s referendum, in which nearly 99% of southerners voted for independence, the “Republic of South Sudan” is scheduled to be born on July 10.
“In late 2007, a lot of Southern Sudanese in Israel began telling me they wanted go back home and help rebuild their country,” she said.
The half-century of fighting with the north, which cost 2.5 million southerners’ lives, is what drove the refugees to flee their homeland and migrate to Israel in the first place. The mainly Christian, oil-rich south’s struggle to break away from tyrannical, Muslim Sudan ended with the 2005 peace treaty that paved the way for independence.
At about that time, Southern Sudanese who’d migrated to Egypt began heading clandestinely across the border into Israel. Some 8,000 are now in the country (along with some 25,000 other African refugees, largely from Eritrea, who’ve also crossed over from Egypt).
Hedding, who accompanies refugees on flights back to Southern Sudan every month except during the rainy season, May through September, said that when the homecoming planes approach Juba airport, “there’s so much excitement on board, it’s hard to describe. People always cheer when the plane lands. When they get off, sometimes they kiss the ground.
“They always have family members waiting for them, and I remember once a woman got off the plane, she was met by her sister, and the two of them began hugging each other, rolling around in the dust, crying and laughing.”
Arrangements are made for the refugees’ smooth return home, Hedding added, noting that she monitors their progress and that “so far, there have been no unhappy endings.”
One man who took the course here in entrepreneurship is now running a taxi service in Southern Sudan with a rickshaw he outfitted with a motorcycle engine. Another returnee opened a sports bar that made a name for itself with satellite TV broadcasts of the World Cup, she said.
Emanuel Logooro, who returned to Southern Sudan nearly a year ago after four years at Kibbutz Eilot, said he was in the process of starting up a kibbutz back home.
“I want to contribute to my country, and a kibbutz would be a great contribution,” he said while visiting Israel. “My family said I could have some of their land – Sudan is a very, very big country, and they gave me enough land to start seven kibbutzim.
“I got a bank loan to start building the facilities, and now I’m hoping to find about 40 families to join,” said Logooro, who came to Israel with his wife and is now back home with her and their three children.
Hedding noted that the repatriation from Israel is a drop in the ocean of some 2 million Southern Sudanese who’ve returned home in recent years, mainly from refugee camps in neighboring African countries.
Some in Israel are still hesitant to return for fear that the fighting with the north will resume.
But for the most part, she said, the community here is gaining encouragement from the stories of Southern Sudanese who’ve made the trip back from Israel to their soon-to-be-independent homeland.
“Potentially,” Hedding said, “there are thousands more in Israel who will be joining them.”