An Israeli court last week upheld a government plan to deport all South Sudanese residents now living in the country, a move that comes amid a wider government crackdown on the 60,000 African nationals who’ve entered Israel illegally over the past few years.
Human rights groups have objected to Israel’s handling of the Africans, saying the government does not do enough to differentiate between economic migrants and genuine asylum-seekers.
Five years ago, when the number of Africans in Israel was in the hundreds, rather then the thousands, the Jewish state’s policies toward the group was touted as an example to other nations.
At the time, Israeli soldiers and civilians talked about the need to help African refugees. Aliza Olmert, wife of then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, spoke of getting personally involved to bring to Israel 4-year-old Venus Bashir, who was stranded in Egypt’s Sinai border after her family crossed into Israel.
Five years later, the Bashir family is getting noticeably different treatment from the Israeli government. They are among the more than 1,000 South Sudanese the Israeli government has announced it will soon deport.
“The government of Israel now dealing with us like we are prisoners of war,” says Katniss Bashir. “We are not migrants or refugees.”
Bashir is sitting in the living room of the apartment he shares with his daughter, Venus. He’s just heard the news that the Israeli court had upheld the deportation order against South Sudanese, and he’s worried. He says everyone knows South Sudan is still practically at war with its northern neighbor. He can’t understand how the Israeli government would declare it safe for them to return.
“The government of Israel knows everything and they want to send us back,” he said. “Like somebody wants to kill you. Like I see fire and I want to throw you in that fire.”
In the court’s ruling, an Israeli judge said the vast majority of South Sudan was not dangerous. Interior Minister Eli Yishai, from the religious Shas party, praised the ruling, and said he would continue to fight until every African national in Israel was expelled.
Orit Rubin, a director at Assaf, a Tel Aviv-based organization that assists asylum seekers, says that politicians like Yishai incite the public against African nationals.
“Right now they know they are not protected anymore. They know that they can be arrested. They don’t if when how it will happen,” she said. “Most of them are so desperate by now and feel so unwelcome in Israel that I think people gave up.”
Rubin says Africans come to Assaf’s offices begging for tents, so that when they are deported they have somewhere to sleep. Others say they would rather be arrested by Israel and held in detention centers here.
Bashir says he hopes it won’t come to that. He’ll return to South Sudan when he is ordered to.
“What are we going to do?” he asks. “We don’t have choice.”
His daughter, Venus, is scared. At 9, she speaks fluent Hebrew and has spent most of her life in Israel. She says she only knows South Sudan from what she’s seen on TV.
“I saw that there is a war,” she said through a translator. “I don’t want to go there. There is no clean water or food or bathrooms.”
Venus says she hopes that once again someone will help her.