This summer, Israel’s government has undertaken a policy of arresting what are expected to be tens of thousands of Africans residing in the Jewish State, holding them in detention camps, and deporting them.
The first to be deported are Southern Sudanese Christians, many of whom have resided in Israel for the past six years or more, according to Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, a Tel Aviv-based nonprofit human rights organization that protects the rights of migrant workers.
“They are a very Zionist community, the South Sudanese,” Rozen said, adding that the Hotline for Migrant Workers opposes both the deportation and the manner in which it is taking place.
“We object to the deportation; we think there are other ways to encourage them to return to [the newly independent nation of South Sudan,]” she said.
In July 2011, South Sudan became the world’s newest country.
Asked about the government’s decision to arrest, incarcerate, and deport thousands of Southern Sudanese Christians, Shahar Azani, spokesperson and consul for media affairs, stressed the Israeli government’s right to deport illegal residents.
“Israel, like all nations, has the right and obligation to protect its borders from infiltration. Israel distinguishes between illegal migrants and asylum-seekers and looks into each case individually, in accordance with criteria set forth by international legal standards as well as Israeli law,” Azani said in an e-mail.
But some human rights advocates believe that deportation of this small Christian Zionist community (as of May, there were approximately 3,000 South Sudanese Christians residing in Israel; at present there are 500) is opportunistic.
“In one speech, Bibi said, ‘We are starting with the South Sudanese,'” said Rozen. She points out, however, that the majority of the approximately 60,000 illegal immigrants remaining in Israel are Muslims from Eritrea and North Sudan, who are protected from deportation under international law. Thus she believes the deportation of the South Sudanese is being disingenuously cited as the start of a massive deportation, to calm public sentiment – but not because it reflects reality.
“In a short period of time the public will realize they were deceived,” she said.
Sudanese-American human rights activist Simon Deng, whose historic 300-mile “Freedom Walk” from the United Nations in New York to the Capitol in Washington DC gained him an audience with President Bush that paved the way for a meeting between Bush and the President of South Sudan, expressed disappointment in the Israeli government policy – especially the arrest and incarceration of families with children.
A self-identified Christian Zionist, Deng states that Israel has the right to deport any illegal resident. But he stresses that South Sudanese Christians, some of whom have been residing in Israel for more than five years, are allies of Israel and had hoped to be allowed to have some time get affairs in order.
In March, Deng traveled to Israel and met with government officials to propose that South Sudanese Christians residing in Israel be given 12 months to make arrangements to repatriate.
“‘I told them, if after 12 months anyone is left, we Southern Sudanese will take responsibility so Israel will not be blamed by anybody,'” he said.
Some individuals in Israel’s government agreed with his proposal, Deng said, but they were overridden by Eli Yishai, Israel’s Minister of the Interior.
The policy of incarcerating South Sudanese–including, in some cases, families with young children–is a slap in the face to people who saw themselves as Israel’s best allies in Africa, according to Deng.
“Families are now in prison in Israel, with kids,” he said. “There is no justification for putting families with children in prison.”
Deng pointed out that recently Salva Kiir Mayardit, president of South Sudan, stated his intent to build his nation’s embassy in Jerusalem to recognize it as Israel’s capital.
“He is the first world leader ever to say that,” Deng pointed out. “Now people will say to him, ‘You are a fool. Do you see what the Israelis are doing to your people?'”
Some Southern Sudanese families that have been arrested for failing to register for deportation last month were on their way to do so at the time of their arrest, according to Rozen.
She and others at her organization have documented that sudden deportation of the Southern Sudanese forced many to leave without their savings, pay that was due them, and in some cases without medicine.
“A lot of people left bank accounts open with money [in them],” she said. “Some left jobs and couldn’t take their pay because they were detained. We met 88 people with bank accounts, people who did not have the opportunity to collect their savings. Others left without collecting salaries, and five people couldn’t collect their medicines.”
Rozen disagrees with the manner in which deportation of the South Sudanese has been conducted.
“Nothing [bad] would have happened if we had allowed them to go with dignity back home.”
Rozen noted that, although South Sudan is independent, the situation there is “extremely hard and deteriorating.”
Awaiting deportation July 25, 2012 is Doup Lul Biyan Maker, 25, a South Sudanese Christian who worked in a spa. Preparing to leave after six years in Israel, he made time to share his story over the phone with this reporter.
He would have preferred to have “six months or a year” to prepare to leave, he said. But he added, “I really like this country and I don’t have a problem with Jewish people or Israel.”
He fled his homeland due to persecution of Christians at the hands of Sudan’s Muslim extremist government in 2006.
Fleeing by foot across the desert, he encountered many hardships.
“I met Egyptian soldiers and they shot at me, but G-d gave me a way,” he said. “When I came to Israel I was still running because I thought they were Egyptians. When I came to Israel they didn’t try to kill me. I lay down because I was tired. They shot a rocket to see me; then they told me to wake up. They check[ed] me to see I am innocent and a good person. They told me, ‘Don’t you worry, we are not going to shoot or kill you. G-d made sure you came to a safe place.'”
He still remembers the Israel Defense Forces for their decency, he said.
“Egyptians had taken my shoes [in Egypt],” he said. “But the Israelis gave me shoes and clothes. They said, ‘Don’t worry man, we are brothers.'”
A rap artist, he was inspired by the soldiers to write several songs honoring the IDF, who he says “are not killing innocent people, just protecting their country.”
He wrote and performed some of the songs “to give thanks” while in a detention center awaiting entry to Israel. One is called, “Borderline;” the other is “Shalom, shalom, G-d is with you.”
Asked why, while held in a prison, he was singing songs praising the IDF, he says he “told them I like the way they did to me when I cross the border and it doesn’t matter I am in jail.”
Tomorrow he returns to a land where his future is uncertain.
“The soldiers act[ed] like they are my brothers; for this reason I will never forget them even though I will go back tomorrow to my country,” he said. “I will celebrate it [this feeling] in my country if G-d keep me.”