Refugees and their supporters in Tel Aviv mark World Refugee Day on Friday. But amidst what is meant to be a celebratory event hangs a strong sense of unease, as Israel tightens its immigration policies, threatening to deport those who seek protection and to jail the ones it cannot expel. Last week, Israel began aggressive efforts to deport the entire South Sudanese community, which had enjoyed protection from deportation until now. Activestills documented the weeks leading up to their expulsion.
Text by Yotam Gidron
All photos by Activestills
On June 7, 2012, the Jerusalem District Court ruled against a petition submitted by several Israeli human rights organizations, asking the court not to lift the collective protection that had been granted to South Sudanese asylum seekers by the State of Israel in recent years. In so ruling, the court legally opened the door for their expulsion. This decision came in the midst of a raging public debate that accuses the government for the long-time neglect of the issue of refugees and immigration, or, as it is now called by official government representatives, “the problem of infiltrators.”
There are today 250,000 foreigners in Israel. Some 60,000 of them are asylum seekers from Africa, of which 50,000 are Eritreans and Sudanese. In recent years, the State of Israel has refused to examine their individual asylum requests, thus leaving the growing African community in Israel with no basic rights apart from permitted them to remain within its borders.
In the beginning of 2012, UNOCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) declared that in spite of South Sudan’s independence, announced on July 9, 2011, all returns to it must be voluntary due to the acute humanitarian situation, exacerbated by conflict, natural disasters and lack of basic services. Half of South Sudan’s population is suffering from shortage of food, and does not have access to safe water supplies. The Israeli UNHCR office has also recommended that the expulsion be delayed until individual asylum requests can be reviewed.
There are currently between 700 and 1000 asylum seekers from South Sudan – half of them children – who came to Israel escaping Sudan’s civil war, during which they were persecuted. Until June 2012, they also feel under Israel’s collective protection afforded to all Sudanese nationals.
Manipulating the UN term “voluntarily,” the Population and Immigration Authority announced shortly after the court’s decision, that asylum seekers are asked to sign “voluntary departure” forms in the following week and prepare to leave.
Only three days later, in the early morning of June 10, the inspectors of the Oz Unit – the Ministry of the Interior’s enforcement unit – started patrolling the streets of major cities in Israel, looking for South Sudanese men and women. Those who where “found” were arrested on the spot and given two options: to either sign the voluntary forms and secure their places on flights leaving to Juba, or be sent to jail with their families and deported by force. There are currently dozens of children imprisoned in Israeli jails.
UN and right organizations pleading for reversal of this decision were turned down and the first flight to Sudan left on the morning of June 17. On board were those who asked to leave Israel walking tall. Eli Yishai, the Israeli Minister of the Interior, arrived at the airport and in front of the departure hall, which only media members and the deported asylum seekers could enter, talked proudly of “Operation Going Home.”
Using the public’s ignorance of the finer points of this issue, and the confusion of the asylum seekers forced to leave in a haste, Eli Yishai, backed fully by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leveraged the court’s decision to make a show of false leadership on the back of a small and persecuted community. On future flights, as media interest declines, more and more arrested families will be deported to a cruel and harsh reality.