South Sudanese distressed by looming deportations

Government decision requires entire community to leave Israel by March 31, or face deportation.

South Sudanese in Tel Aviv 390 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
South Sudanese in Tel Aviv 390
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Members of the South Sudanese community in Israel on Wednesday expressed anger and confusion at the government decision announced a day earlier, which will require the entire community to leave Israel by March 31, or face deportation.
Matthew Deng, the pastor of two South Sudanese churches in south Tel Aviv, said he doesn’t believe that people in the community are afraid to return to their country, but are simply not ready to return to a place of great uncertainty and gripping poverty.
“South Sudan is dealing with many issues, how can people go back now? We don’t even have hospitals, schools – nothing,” said Deng. “All we have is what’s in [the capital] Juba; it is enough for all of South Sudan.”
Deng added that people in the community want to go back, but they want to wait a couple years “until South Sudan is ready.”
He also said that many are worried about returning because they are working in Israel to support families back in South Sudan, who he said would now have much greater trouble supporting them.
Simon Koang Gai, a father of four who fled to Israel from South Sudan seven years ago, expressed anger at the decision, saying it would turn many people in the new state against Israelis.
“Netanyahu says Israel is friends of South Sudan, so why do you kick out your friends? It can cause problems for us; people won’t invite Israelis to South Sudan.”
Koang Gai added that he and the rest of the community are not afraid to return and they will accept the decision of the Israeli government, but that the move leaves a bitter taste in their mouths, nonetheless.
The South Sudanese population in Israel is predominantly Christian and numbers anywhere between 1,000 to 2,000, depending on varying sources.
In the statement released Tuesday night, the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) said those willing to leave on their own volition will be given assistance by the state in returning, including a one-time stipend of 1,000 euros per person.
PIBA added that after April 1, the one-time stipend will no longer be available.
PIBA issued an English statement with the announcement, entitled “A call for the people of South Sudan.”
In the statement, they said “now that South Sudan has become an independent state, it is time for you to return to your homeland. While this is not a simple move, the State of Israel is committed to helping those who wish to return voluntarily in the near future.”
The message also includes a help line to call if they are looking for assistance relocating.
Orit Marom, the advocacy coordinator for The Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF), said Tuesday that while the South Sudanese in Israel do want to return to their homeland, the situation is not safe for them to return at the moment.
Marom said that the South Sudanese she has spoken to are terrified about the prospect of returning to the country, which is still unstable in many areas where fighting is ongoing.
In addition, she said they don’t believe they have enough time to prepare themselves to leave.
“They have only two months to get ready to leave, it’s nothing,” said Marom. “The refugees are people that haven’t been in South Sudan in 10 or 15 years – some of them have never even been there.
They need a year or two to get ready to return and they need professional training and psychological treatment for their children to prepare them to return.”
Marom said she believes the step is a cynical move by Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to make it appear that they are doing something about the tens of thousands of African asylum-seekers in Israel that the country cannot legally deport, by returning a little over a thousand South Sudanese.
“This is not a solution,” Marom said. “Israel is still ignoring the critical mass of people that are here, the 50,000 that they can’t kick out, by deporting people to a place that is very dangerous.”
On Wednesday, the Interior Ministry issued a release stating that 2,295 people crossed the Egyptian-Israeli border in January, among them 1,805 men, 429 women and 61 children.
While the Interior Ministry said the number is much higher than the number of migrants who entered in January 2011, it is significantly lower than the 2,931 that the ministry said entered the country in December 2011.
Some observers believe the growth is due to a realization among migrants that the border fence being constructed by Israel along the southern border will soon be completed.
In a report issued in December 2011, PIBA stated there are a total of 51,125 “infiltrators” in Israel as of November 25. Of these, 28,205 are from Eritrea, 13,066 from Sudan and 9,855 from elsewhere in Africa, according to the authority.
Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.