This summer, Israel’s government has undertaken a policy of detaining Africans who are illegally residing in the Jewish State, holding them in immigration centers, and deporting them.
The first to be deported are Southern Sudanese Christians, some 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 advocates for illegal workers.
“They are a very Zionist community, the South Sudanese,” Rozen said, adding that the Hotline for Migrant Workers opposes both the policy of 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 take action over the 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. He added, “Israel is working with the newly established state of South Sudan to bring its citizens back home.”
But some human rights advocates believe that deportation of this relatively small Christian Zionist community (as of May, there were approximately 1,500 South Sudanese Christians residing in Israel; at present there are roughly 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 from Eritrea and North Sudan, who are, at present, protected under international law from deportation. She believes the deportation of the South Sudanese is being 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 George W. Bush that paved the way for a meeting between Bush and the President of South Sudan, expressed disappointment in the Israeli government policy.
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 is a slap in the face to people who saw themselves as Israel’s best allies in Africa, according to Deng.
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?’”
Doup Lul Biyan Maker, 25, a South Sudanese Christian who worked in a spa, was awaiting deportation on July 25. 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 remembers the decency of the Israel Defense Forces, 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 he first encountered 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.”
CORRECTION: An error in the original version of this post attributed to Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, the statement that the majority of the approximately 60,000 illegal immigrants remaining in Israel are Muslims from Eritrea and North Sudan. Ms. Rozen contacted the author to clarify that while indeed most of the 60,000 remaining are from these places, the majority of Africans residing in Israel at present are Christians, not Muslims.