Tereza Maoun, a 38-year-old mother of six, fled her home in Juba, South Sudan last week when clashes broke out at a nearby military post. When she returned the next morning, she discovered that her house had been ransacked, and all her family’s belongings were gone.
“We found that everything is broken. They didn’t leave for us anything,” said Maoun, who is now staying with friends in another part of the South Sudanese capital. “Even clothes – they took everything from me.”
Maoun had been back in South Sudan for about a year before violence broke out on December 15 between government soldiers and rebel factions in the north. “When we came to Juba, we didn’t know about Juba. Even we didn’t know about South Sudan,” said Maoun, who first left her home country in 2003.
She had lived in Egypt before making a dangerous journey through the Sinai desert in 2007 to reach Israel. But in December 2012, Israel deported her and her family to South Sudan.
Group protection revoked
Maoun was among several hundred South Sudanese refugees deported from Israel after South Sudan became independent in July 2011. The country’s secession from Sudan, Israel argued, meant refugees could safely return home.
In June 2012, they were rounded up, put onto buses and expelled. “You’re not responsible for the future. Those who have been repatriated are people that have agreed to it, and their home country has agreed and cooperated,” said Paul Hirschson, deputy spokesman for the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs.
|About 700 South Sudanese asylum seekers lived in Israel before the government deportations began in June 2012 [EPA]|
Numbering about 700 before the deportations began, South Sudanese asylum seekers represent a tiny fraction of the nearly 60,000 African migrants in Israel, most of whom are from Sudan and Eritrea.
“Every single one of the illegal migrants is entitled to apply for refugee status determination … They will be checked and evaluated to see whether they are entitled under international law to refugee status and if they are, they will be granted refugee status,” Hirschson said.
But since its creation in 1948, Israel has recognised fewer than 200 people as refugees, and the country only checks the refugee status determination (RSD) applications of nine percent of all asylum seekers.
Rather than process such claims, Israel applies temporary group protection to most asylum seekers, a status it also refers to as “deferred deportation”. This designation protects people from repatriation, but doesn’t provide them with any social rights in Israel. It initially applied to South Sudanese asylum seekers, but the government lifted the group protection just before the deportations.
On Sunday, thousands of African asylum seekers protested through central Tel Aviv, demanding to be recognised as refugees and denouncing Israel’s policy of indefinite detention, without charge or trial, for African migrants.
“I came out with nothing: no education, no money,” said Franco Kombe, who was deported from Israel in June 2012 after having lived there with his family for four years. “Many families that came … from Israel are suffering,” Kombe told Al Jazeera this week, explaining he hasn’t held a stable job since he returned to Juba a year ago.
“Nobody thought that something like this [fighting in South Sudan] is going to happen. For me, where can I escape [to]? How will I escape without money?”
Israel signed and ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, the centrepiece of which is the principle of non-refoulement, which states that “a refugee should not be returned to a country where he or she faces serious threats to his or her life or freedom”.
But last February, a report revealed the country had secretly expelled more than 1,000 Sudanese asylum seekers through a third country. Sudan’s penal code designates Israel as an enemy state, and bars its citizens from visiting the country at risk of imprisonment and even death.
Deporting Sudanese to Sudan would be the gravest violation possible of the convention that Israel has signed - a crime never before committed.
A few years ago Michael Bavli, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, said “deporting Sudanese to Sudan would be the gravest violation possible of the convention that Israel has signed – a crime never before committed”.
Israel calls these deportations “voluntary”, and says the asylum seekers have signed forms acknowledging they are leaving “willingly“. The government also says it will give migrants up to $3,500 to leave.
“The fact that somebody is looking for a better life, I can understand it. Israel is definitely a better life than many other places in the world, but that doesn’t entitle a person to refugee status,” Hirschson said. “Sending a person back home is zero violation of the convention on refugees.”
In August, it was revealed that Uganda had agreed to take in thousands of the asylum seekers, in exchange for agricultural aid and equipment, and cash from Israel.
Several Eritrean refugees have reportedly signed the forms to be expelled to Uganda so far. But in at least one case where a deportation was carried out, an asylum seeker was actually sent back to Eritrea, after Uganda refused to let him enter the country.
Human Rights Watch estimates that each month, more than 1,500 Eritreans flee their country, where an authoritative government drafts citizens into compulsory, decades-long military service. In 2009, between 80-90 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers were granted refugee status worldwide.
Detention or deportation
Israel recently opened a new, so-called “open” detention facility, named Holot, to hold African asylum seekers without charge or trial until they can be repatriated to their home countries. The migrants held there must check in three times per day, and are forbidden from working.
“[Government officials] said specifically they need this new so-called open facility because it helps them convince people to sign for voluntary repatriation,” said Reut Michaeli, head of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants in Tel Aviv.
“If they want people to leave, they need to make them miserable enough to give up and go back, to the extent that [asylum seekers] say, ‘I’d rather die in my country than be in jail for so long’,” Michaeli told Al Jazeera.
Hirschson disputed these claims, reasserting that people are repatriated only after the “agreement of the individual and the agreement and cooperation of the home country”.
|Several hundred asylum seekers left Israel’s Holot detention facility on a “March for Freedom” in mid-December [EPA]|
But international officials forcefully challenge this argument.
William Tall, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, said without a true refugee status determination process, and facing the prospect of indefinite detention, “there is no voluntary return”.
In the last month, African asylum seekers have left the Holot facility twice, once marching and taking a bus all the way to Jerusalem to demand the government recognise them as refugees.
Reports also surfaced that Israeli officials were now turning away asylum seekers seeking to renew their visas – most African asylum seekers in Israel hold a “conditional release” permit that must be renewed every three months – and were instead instructing them to go to the Holot detention center within 30 days.
Twenty-four-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker Solomon Gorogo Desta received such a letter. “If they say to go to the camp, I’m going. What can I do?” said Desta, who has lived in Israel since 2008. “We have two options: If we want to go to Eritrea, you go, [or] if you want to sit in the camp, you sit. These are the options of the Israeli government. I don’t want to come back to Eritrea.”
‘They just come to die’
Back in South Sudan, 19-year-old Veronika Musa is now living in a UN camp for internally displaced persons in Juba. Musa left Sudan when she was six, and lived in Israel for most of her teenage years after arriving in 2007 at age 13. She was forced to leave last year, under the government’s deportation orders, as she awaited the results of her Israeli high school matriculation exams.
She told Al Jazeera when fighting began in Juba this month, her father stayed behind at the family’s home in the city, while she and her two younger siblings – Tedo, 16, and Regina, 13 – went to the camp in search of safety.
“No one can touch us here, but at home there are some soldiers that can come … They said that the UN compound is better,” she said, adding she hopes to continue her studies abroad when, and if, she can leave South Sudan again.
“[Israel doesn’t] need to send other people back. Because if they come here, they just come to die. There is nothing here,” Musa said.