A week of arrests across Israel culminated on Sunday with the several bus loads of South Sudanese being taken to the airport. Most showed up by themselves. They know by now that there is little point in trying to hide.
At Tel Aviv’s main bus station, dozens stood surrounded by their luggage, and security.
“We got arrested and we had to sign to go back by force,” said Jisma Alia. The 29-year-old held her daughter close as she waited to board the bus to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. “It’s very sad because why are we here? Because of the future of the children.”
Most were indignant. They are being sent away, but have no desire in staying in a country where they are not welcome, they said.
127 South Sudanese were airlifted to the South Sudanese capital, Juba, early on Monday. They were told by the security forces that they could either choose to leave, with a 1000 Euro offering from the government, or they would face an Israeli jail.
The Israeli government is responding to pressure from some elements of society to crack down on immigration from Africa. In recent protests, some locals voiced their concerns about the Jewish identity and the demographics of the state.
There are around 60,000 illegal African immigrants in the country, said Paul Hirschson, spokesperson for Israel’s foreign ministry.
“If we don’t take steps to disincentive them from coming, then more and more of them will come,” he said.
Earlier on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that there would a flight bound for Juba leaving on Monday morning, adding there would be another one next week. He referred to those being deported as “illegal infiltrators”.
Hirschson denies that the crackdown is politically motivated, saying that the number of illegal African immigrants in the country amounts to almost one per cent of the population. “In British terms that is 500,000 people. In Israel it is 60,000. We have to start somewhere.”
According to Hirschson, up to 30,000 could be deported eventually, and the Israeli government is actively working towards that goal. The rest of the migrants, who came from countries such as Eritrea and Somalia, cannot be sent home so long as their countries pose a threat to their safety.
Those from countries which have no diplomatic ties to Israel, such as North Sudan, cannot easily be expelled as full support from such countries is needed for repatriation of this nature, said Hirschson.
As South Sudan was granted independence last year, and it maintains fully supportive ties with Israel, its expatriates were the first in Israel to be forced out.
Africans often come to Israel by walking across the border from Egypt’s northern Sinai region. The government is now reinforcing the border with a new electric fence, partly out of concern from the outcome of the Egyptian revolution and also to stop such illegal entry into the country.
Not all of Israeli society fully supports the move. By the buses in Tel Aviv were some members of the Aid Organisation for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF).
“Don’t ask me about the legal basis for this,” said Orit Rubin, a member of ASSAF, who was trying to call the UN before the immigrants boarded the bus. “The only thing I know is that we are in the Wild West right now. Nobody knows what’s happening and nobody knows their rights.”
She sees no future for Africans in Israel, as society is increasingly hostile to them.
“Without getting rights in Israel, without proper policy, with the Israeli population being more and more afraid of Africans just because they are Africans, and with all the incitement, the situation here is very bad.”
For those going home so quickly, it is a stark and devastating end to what had been a long journey into the country.
Adhar has been in Israel for three years, but remembers how tough it was for him to get to this point. Travelling from South Sudan, through a hostile North Sudan, and into Egypt, he stayed there for four years before crossing the Sinai region and into Israel.
“The journey was difficult, I injured my leg; everything was difficult,” he said.
Adhar was not leaving on Sunday. Like many he was there to see off friends who were boarding the first deportation flight. Such flights are planned to leave weekly from Tel Aviv, and those from South Sudan know they will likely end up on one sooner or later.