Tel Aviv — As actor George Clooney campaigned in Washington about the growing turmoil in Sudan, fear is heightening here about the uncertain fate of some 700 South Sudanese who the government says must leave the country by the end of the month or face deportation.
Eight months ago, hundreds of migrants welcomed South Sudan’s independence with song and dance in the streets of Tel Aviv. Encouraged by statehood, many of them even accepted Israeli government assistance and plane tickets home.
But now, the remaining South Sudanese asylum seekers say their newborn country isn’t stable enough to ensure a safe return. They say that humanitarian needs, an economic crisis and sectarian strife make it too risky, especially given the fact that nearly half of the community is composed of children.
They say that friends who have already returned have told them about hardship and tragedy. They are hoping the Israeli government will cancel a deportation order and allow them to remain in the Jewish state for the time being.
“It’s a balagan,” said Simon Meyear, a South Sudanese asylum seeker who used the Hebrew word for “chaos”’ or “mess.”
“We’ve become friends of Israel,” Meyear continued. “We thought [the government] would give us some more time, until everything will be good. … We are trying to raise our voice up to tell them that it is still dangerous.”
Last Saturday night hundreds of Africans and Israeli human rights activists gathered outside the Tel Aviv Cinematheque chanting “It’s dangerous in South Sudan. We’re saving human lives.”
Speakers from the refugee community, meanwhile, made emotional pleas to the Israeli public to reconsider.
“If we go right now we are going to die,” said Nathalina Kirba, who told the crowd how her daughter Naka has been integrated in Israel’s school system. “Is there anyone who can tell me they would send their children to a place with no water and no security? Mr. Netanyahu: can you promise me and all the South Sudanese children that they will be alive in one year?” Kirba said, addressing the Israeli prime minister.
The protest came just days after Clooney drew national attention by getting arrested outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington D.C. The noted actor had lobbied on Capitol Hill and at the White House for U.S. humanitarian aid to refugees inside Sudan.
The situation in South Sudan has been on a downward trajectory since independence was declared in July.
According to United Nations reports on the fledgling nation, there are hundreds of thousands of returning refugees and displaced persons in refugee camps. Only one in every two residents has access to water, and more than a third face malnourishment. A weak central government has yet to assert itself amid warring ethnic militias, and ongoing tension with Sudan has resulted in a cutoff in oil exports — the main source of income for one of the poorest countries in the world.
Echoing arguments used to defend the status of Darfurian Sudanese refugees in Israel, Israeli human rights activists say the Jewish state has a moral obligation not to send the South Sudanese back home to such uncertainty. Author Eyal Megged accused Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai of invoking the same libels against the African refugees as those used against European Jews.
“The people that the government of Israel wants to expel experienced the Exodus from Egypt just now,” said Megged at the rally. “Israel is more appropriate than anywhere else in the world to grant asylum. We were established to give a nation shelter.”
Israel’s government views most of the Africans not as refugees but as migrant laborers. The Darfurian Sudanese are one of the only groups to have their status resolved. The mostly Christian South Sudanese and the Eritrean migrants have lived in limbo for years.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry insists the South Sudanese migrants can return to their homeland in safety, and that countries like Great Britain and Norway have also made the same decisions.
Just because South Sudan is wracked by poverty doesn’t qualify migrants from the country to receive political asylum.
“The situation is not one of prosperity, but a bad economic situation under international law is not justification for political asylum and does not warrant refugee status. If [the South Sudanese] want to be labor immigrants, then they have to apply, and they will be considered on an individual basis,” said Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry
“The situation is safe enough, and other countries such as the UK and Norway also consider it safe enough to return South Sudanese to their country.”
Indeed, from the moment South Sudan gained independence, Israel has shown an interest in cultivating ties. Analysts say South Sudan could be a strategic counterweight for Sudan, which Israeli security officials see as a transit point for Iranian arms to the Gaza Strip.
The insistence on deportation reflects anxiety in Israel in recent years among conservative and religious groups that the Jewish state has been overrun with African migrants who are crowding low-income earners out of the job market and will dilute Israel’s Jewish majority.
Amid rising numbers of African migrants crossing illegally into Israel from Sinai, the government has begun building a sophisticated barrier fence as well as a detention center. In an effort to deter migrants, a recently passed amendment to Israel’s infiltration law mandated that illegal immigrants spend three years in a detention facility.
Neighborhood activists from south Tel Aviv claim that the rising population of Africa migrants has brought a rise in crime into the city’s hardscrabble neighborhoods.
“It’s not that we aren’t empathetic,” said Gil Lieberson, a 35-year-old computer programmer from Herzliya who predicted that the rising African community would stir ethnic tension, as in France. “The current situation isn’t good for anyone. … We feel that if we let this problem unchecked, then Tel Aviv will end up like Marseille.”
The Foreign Ministry’s assessment helped bolster a decision by Israel’s Interior Ministry to begin deportation next month. Sabine Hadad, a spokeswoman for Israel’s immigration authority, said that South Sudanese for years enjoyed immunity from deportation. In recent months, the government has given refugees 1,000 euros each, but that offer is off the table beginning next month.
“Whoever doesn’t leave by March 31 will be deported, and won’t get one euro,” she said.
Moreover, the Interior Ministry has cancelled the temporary work permits that have enabled the Sudanese asylum seekers to survive in Israel. Asylum seeker Simon Mayear said the pressure of looming deportation and not being able to work is taking its toll.
“We are really not happy; even when we were in Arab countries we didn’t get treated like this. We’re not criminals. We are Christians. We are friends of Israel,” Mayear said.
“We all want to go back, but the way South Sudan looks right now, it looks dangerous. They are fighting themselves. There is no security. It’s all from zero. It’s a desert now. It’s not a country; it’s a mirage. How come you are sending me there?”