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Israel carried out its first airlift in mid-June to repatriate some 120 South Sudanese migrants, who were described by the government as “returning voluntarily.”
Officially, this airlift was carried out as an assisted voluntary return and reintegration, agreed to bilaterally at the highest levels of the Israeli and South Sudanese governments, according to media sources. The deal was finalized during a recent visit of the president of South Sudan to Israel.
“People are not being deported... We have agreed with the Israeli government for our people to be peacefully and voluntarily repatriated,” South Sudan’s Minister of Humanitarian Affairs Joseph Lual Achuil told AFP news agency, when the first airlift from Tel Aviv landed at Juba airport on 18 June.
Four representatives of the South Sudanese government flew to Israel to oversee the first repatriation flight — and returned home on board the same plane.
More repatriation flights are taking off this week from Tel Aviv to Juba, involving between 2,000 and 3,000 migrants.
According to Sigal Rozen, who works with the Israeli Hotline for Migrant Workers, migrants to be returned are currently in the Saharonim facility in the Negev, near Ketziot. These include South Sudanese who have refused to leave voluntarily, “either because their employers owe them a large sum of money which they wish to recover, or because they have children here,” according to Rozen.
One of the South Sudanese officials who came to Israel for the first flight told Reuters that he believed only a few South Sudanese scheduled for the weekly flights may resist repatriation — but he added that Israel promised a hearing of these cases by humanitarian authorities.
However, these humanitarian authorities are part of the Israeli Interior Ministry’s department for refugee protection — the same ministry that has ordered the departures. These authorities have reportedly rejected all but eight of the 4,178 asylum applications that have been considered in the two years since it began operating, according to a report by the Hotline for Migrant Workers — a rejection rate of over 99.9 percent.
According to the hotline, Israel delegated the role of dealing with asylum seekers to the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees until 2008, when it started conducting the process itself. Rozen also said that the Israeli Interior Ministry deports several thousand people every year; hence the recent returns campaign is not new.
William Tall, UNHCR representative in Tel Aviv, told Egypt Independent that thus far his organization has not been involved in the airlifts because “we don’t agree with the process.”
According to him, individuals who have applied for asylum or refugee cases should not be detained, but should be free while their cases are being considered. While the flights returning the South Sudanese involve those who have technically agreed to leave on a voluntary basis, the return “cannot be considered completely voluntary,” Tall said, because there was a lot of pressure involved, as hundreds of South Sudanese reported to the UNHCR in Tel Aviv over recent months. Pressures include the revocation of visas previously renewable every four months to stay and work, arrests and detentions, and a general feeling of lack of safety and future for these migrants in Israel, according to Tall.
Israel’s Interior Ministry decided in January 2012 to reduce the number of African migrants in Israel, and set a date of 1 April for the South Sudanese to leave. A group of Israeli NGOs filed a court appeal, which was rejected by an Israeli court in early June on the grounds that no proof had been presented that the South Sudanese “would be in physical danger if they returned home.”
After the court ruling rejected the South Sudanese appeal on 7 June, the deportations began to proceed very quickly.
Though those scheduled to leave were promised a week to wrap up their personal affairs in Israel, the “Oz” immigration unit began making arrests after three days. The first repatriation flight took place just ten days later.
After the arrival of the first repatriation flight in Juba, some of the passengers spoke to the media and complained about having been treated as “criminals,” threatened, summarily thrown in jail, and of having their permits to be in Israel summarily revoked.
AFP reported that one of those on board the first repatriation flight, Mayuol Juac, 30, who had worked as a waiter in Eilat and Tel Aviv for five years, was arrested three months prior to the flight, and then imprisoned on suspicion of being illegal. His visa was confiscated and he was pressured to leave. “They took it from me and they said: ‘You have just one week to leave, one week to leave the country!’ Those without papers were arrested and put in jail until their deportation. Then it is from jail to the airport to Juba,” Juac said.
One South Sudanese government official in Tel Aviv for the first repatriation flight said his compatriots “would be welcomed back as economic assets,” Reuters reported — and he said that most of those returned would “leave voluntarily” with a free air trip, and an Israeli grant of 1,000 euros per adult plus 300 euros for each child with them.
Chris Lom of the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM), which helps deal with non-voluntary repatriations, told Egypt Independent that the South Sudanese government asked his organization to give assistance, so most of those on board would be headed to an IOM transit camp in Juba.
Lom’s organization is helping with shelter and transportation. “Obviously it depends on their final destination,” he said, but those returned were welcome to join the convoys that IOM runs in the South Sudanese Provinces of Eastern and Western Equatoria.
“The problem in Israel is that there is no refugee legislation. Lack of legislation, proper institutions and expertise makes verifying the refugee claims very hard,” said Mazen Masri, a Palestinian lawyer. He added that in 2012, the Israeli Knesset amended the 1954 Infiltration Prevention Law to make it more effective in deporting African refugees.
“This law was first enacted in 1954 to facilitate the deportations of Palestinian refugees who were expelled in 1948 and were trying to return back to their homes,” Masri said.
“In this context it is ironic that Israel is insisting that refugees should be repatriated. It is the same state that has said consistently that Palestinian refugees don’t have the right to return to their homes and lands, which are now under its control. Israel is applying a double standard here.”
Most of the African non-Jewish migrants arrived in Israel through the Sinai, after spending time in Egypt where they were also not welcome. They paid Bedouin traffickers to help them cross the Sinai, where Egyptian forces shot and killed dozens of these African migrants. The problem has increased in recent years, as traffickers discovered that holding the migrants for ransom — under threat of death, and in conditions of physical deprivation, punishment and sexual assault — was more profitable than simply guiding them across the desert.
Tall said that the Israeli Government is now trying “to satisfy the public appetite for deportation,” which he believes was sparked by recent accusations [in May] of sexual assaults by Eritreans in Tel Aviv, exacerbated by the concentration of Africans in Tel Aviv and Eilat.
Human Rights Watch reported that Interior Minister Eli Yishai told Israeli Army Radio in May that most African migrants were involved in criminal activities and should be jailed. Yishai claimed that “there are a lot of women in Tel Aviv who have been raped [by African migrants] but are afraid to complain so that they don’t get stigmatized as AIDS carriers”.
According to Masri, a few factors could explain the Israeli decision to return migrants.
There is “the increase in the number of refugees, which the Israeli government started to think of as a demographic threat. Israel sees any significant presence of non-Jews as a threat to the demographic composition of the country. Israel’s population is currently 75.5 percent Jewish, 20.5 percent Palestinian, and 4 percent non-Jews who are not Palestinian. This obsession with demography and Jewish majority has been part of Israeli politics and policies that date back even to the stage before the creation of the state in 1948.”
Masri added that, under a right wing government, Israel thrives “on nurturing a sense of being under constant threat. Those dealing with the threats (actual or perceived) present themselves as national heroes who saved the country.” Also in the context of right wing politics, Masri sees the recent deportations as part of a competition between different political players. “By initiating the deportation campaign, some figures in the government, mainly Yishai, hope to garner more support from residents of those areas. This partially explains the ultra-nationalist and racist propaganda that accompanies this campaign.”
Additional reporting by Lina Attalah
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.