South Sudanese immigrants prepare for mass deportation: 'Israel has become hostile territory'

A South Sudanese child takes part in a protest against deportation back in March. Screen grab from the video below.
 
Hundreds of South Sudanese immigrants are frantically preparing to be deported in the coming weeks, after a court ruled that Israel could send them back to South Sudan. Throughout the past decade, they trickled into the country illegally; until now, Israel had tolerated their presence. Our Observer tells us he is afraid to go back to a country he barely knows, and where violence has recently flared – but that he would also be afraid to stay in Israel, where Africans are increasingly becoming the targets of violent attacks.
 
According to the Israeli government, about 1,500 illegal immigrants from South Sudan are currently living in the country. Organisations that work with Israel's South Sudanese population put the number much lower, at about 700.
 
After South Sudan gained independence from Sudan last summer, the Israeli government began to push for South Sudanese immigrants to be deported, no longer considering them to be at risk of persecution. Human rights groups in Israel argued in court that these immigrants would be in danger if they were sent home to a country that was suffering from severe food shortages, and which continues to be bombed by Sudan, but the Jerusalem District Court rejected their petition on Thursday.
 
Interior Minister Eli Yishai praised the ruling, saying he hoped this would be the first step to expulsing all African immigrants who had entered Israel illegally. His ministry said the deportation of the South Sudanese population would begin shortly.
 
Israel is home to about 60,000 illegal immigrants from Africa, chiefly from Sudan and Eritrea. In the past few weeks, racial tensions have soared in the poor neighbourhoods of southern Tel Aviv, where most of the city’s African immigrants live. Following heated anti-immigration rallies, protesters have repeatedly attacked Africans.
 
According to a recent survey, 52 percent of Jewish Israelis agree with a statement by an Israeli member of parliament who said African immigrants are “a cancer in the body” of the nation, and over a third condone anti-immigrant violence.
 
 
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING VIDEO CONTAINS EXPLICIT LANGUAGE AND MAY SHOCK VIEWERS.
 
This video was filmed by one of our Israeli Observers, David Sheen, during a recent anti-immigration rally in Tel Aviv. He told us the black man who was insulted and smacked on the head by a teenager was a Jewish Israeli citizen originally from Ethiopia.
Contributors

“At this point, we are giving up all hope of staying in Israel. In fact, we now want to leave – Israel has become hostile territory”

Simon Mayer is from South Sudan. He lives with his wife and four children in Tel Aviv.
 
I left South Sudan when I was five years old, after a militia burned down my village. My father, who was our tribe’s leader, took me north, to the capital, Khartoum. Life there was alright until I got to high school and started getting harassed by another militia there who thought I was a spy for the south. My father realised my life was in danger and managed to bribe an official to get me a passport and send me to Egypt in 1999, when I was nineteen. I headed to the UN office to try to gain refugee status, but my application was denied. At least I managed to find work there, as a secretary for a lawyer. A few years later, things started to get ugly. We asylum seekers held a big sit-in in front of Cairo’s UN office, asking for our cases to be reconsidered. Thousands of soldiers attacked us. They beat us and killed 20 people [the Egyptian Interior Ministry blamed the deaths on a stampede]. In Egypt, I married a woman from South Sudan and had two children. I wanted them to grow up safely.
 
“The authorities don’t understand that South Sudan is just a newborn country, and that it’s far from safe for us and our families”
 
At this point, some refugees had started crossing the border into Israel. We decided to join them and arrived in Tel Aviv in 2007. I immediately applied for refugee status. The UN office there gave me temporary papers that allowed me to work for about six months. But then the government seems to have panicked about the amount of African immigrants coming to work in Israel, because they made us go to the Ministry of the Interior, where they took away all our papers. In return, they gave us “conditional release” papers, which allowed us to stay, but not to work. Since then, I have had to survive by doing odd jobs, usually in construction. Others work in hotels, illegally. Many are homeless. My family and I have moved around from place to place; at times we’ve been able to pay the rent, but often we stay with friends. And yet, I have enjoyed my time here in Israel – I am a Christian, and so it was a dream come true to visit the Holy Land. Also, my wife and I have had two more children while in Israel, who have grown up speaking Hebrew.
 
There are about 700 refugees from South Sudan here in Israel [the Interior Ministry says there could be up to 1,500], including quite a few children. Many of us haven’t lived in our birth country for a long, long time and have nothing to go back to. When the government first announced they wanted to kick us out, a few months ago, we held rallies, pleaded, did everything we could to convince them not to send us back there. They didn’t want to hear any of it – they don’t understand that South Sudan is just a newborn country, and that it’s far from safe for us and our families. Because we haven’t been allowed to work, we don’t have any savings; going back to a country we barely know, where there are severe food shortages and we have no money to buy food with anyway, is a terrifying prospect. Not to mention that Sudan continues to bomb South Sudan on a regular basis.
 
“Our hope is that Israel will give us more than just a few weeks to prepare before sending us back to a country we barely know”
 
However, at this point, we are giving up all hope of staying in Israel. In fact, we now want to leave – Israel has become hostile territory. Over the past weeks, there have been more and more anti-African protests in Tel Aviv. Africans are getting beaten up every day, and it’s only a matter of time before one of us gets killed. So about 80 percent of our community has resolved to leave; the remaining 20 percent hope to stay, and plan to fight their case on an individual basis. Our community leaders have contacted South Sudan’s government, which has promised us it will send us an envoy. Our hope is that they will negotiate with the Israeli government so that we get more than just a few weeks to prepare for our departure – and that Israel won’t lock us up in jails. We would also welcome monetary aid to help with our relocation. Right now, we’re drawing up a list of everyone from South Sudan living in Israel – and crossing our fingers.
 
My hope is that my family and I will go back to Juba [the capital of South Sudan] just long enough to obtain passports, and hopefully find a way to earn enough money to go back to Egypt, where my parents-in-law live. I have no family left to go back to in South Sudan.
 
This video shows two protests: one in favour of deporting the South Sudanese back to their home country, the other against it. Both were held in Tel Aviv on March 18.
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure.
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