Stories from South Tel Aviv

Information, photographs, and art centered around the Eritrean, south Sudanese, and Darfuri refugees who fled trauma to live in Israel.
Mother and daughter in South Tel Aviv.
(Sam Maron)

Mother and daughter in South Tel Aviv.

(Sam Maron)

African refugees in Israel who face deportation.

People are telling me that its better to die there than to die here because I cannot support my family here.

—Yohannes Bayu, an Ethiopian refugee in Israel who heads the African Refugee Development Center, on why people are returning to South Sudan.

Repatriation: Voluntary and Involuntary

Voluntary:

  • Since 2009, there are flights from Israel returning South Sudanese and Darfuri asylum seekers to South Sudan.
  • Those returning from Israel take a great risk, as the future of South Sudan is unstable.
  • Over 600 asylum seekers have returned voluntarily.
  • People are increasingly critical of assisted voluntary return (AVR), as it seems that refugees are returning out of desperation because their lives in Israel are difficult and financially unsustainable.
  • It seems that those who return voluntarily do so ignorant of the risk they take, as South Sudan only became an independent entity in July and regions are still disputed by the Khartoum and Juba governments.
  • AVR to South Sudan is facilitated by Operation Blessing International (OBI), backed financially by the Israeli government, and aided by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Until May 2011, UNHCR was also involved with OBI. 
  • Though some claim there is security in Sudan, just a month before its independence the Sudanese government burned and looted villages in the Abyei region. 150,000 people were displaced, and conflicts such as this are destabilizing Sudan’s newfound independence.
  • Some asylum seekers are returning because of the attractive benefits given by OBI. If OBI gives returnees enough notice before their flights, they can take 2-week courses by OBI on agriculture, business, and driving. While some say there are many courses to take before leaving, other refugees in Israel say they know people who weren’t provided with classes.
  • Those who return are promised $500 from OBI to restart their lives in Sudan, but some refugees in Israel know people who did not receive stipends or received less money than they were promised.
  • While most asylum seekers in Israel plan to go home and help rebuild their countries, they don’t feel comfortable doing so at such an uncertain time in Sudan’s history.
  • The main factors prompting refugees to return are not because of what awaits them, but rather what they want to leave in Israel. Unemployment, visa problems, and an inability to receive an education in Israel all prompt people to return.
  • While many have nothing in South Sudan to go back to, others are finding the increasing discrimination against African asylum seekers in Israel and the hardening governmental policies unbearable. Others choose to remain in Israel because they do not want to return to their countries without having progressed in skills and education, which they view as necessary in assisting the new government. They fear that they’ll be looked down upon, won’t find work, and will be poorer and more helpless than they are in Israel.
  • Prior to South Sudan’s independence, asylum seekers felt pressured by OBI to return, as the organization reminded them of Israel’s plans to build a larger detention center in the Negev to scare them.
  • Though AVR occurs by choice, the Israeli government has systematically forced the returns by making life in Israel extremely difficult for refugees.

(Blumenkrantz, Zohar, and Barak Ravid. “Israel sends some 150Israel sends some 150 refugees back to their native Sudan refugees back to their native Sudan.” Ha’aretz13 Dec. 2010.)

(Mitnick, Joshua. “Israel repatriates 150 Sudanese in broader effort to discourage African influx.” The Christian Science Monitor [Tel Aviv] 14 Dec. 2010.)

(Paley, Maya. “Surviving in Limbo: Lived Experiences Among Sudanese and Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel.” Assaf June 2011. Print.)

Involuntary:

  • The Israeli government decreed the forced deportation of over 1,000 South Sudanese asylum seekers, including children, to occur on April 1, 2012. The decree removes the group protection that South Sudanese people had in Israel against repatriation on the basis that the situation in South Sudan has become stable since its independence in July 2011. 
  • The deportation was postponed when a Jerusalem District Court judge issued a temporary injunction to prevent the Ministry of Interior from lifting the South Sudanese group protection, after Israeli NGOs (ASSAF, ARDC, Physicians for Human Rights, ACRI and the Hotline for Migrant Workers) filed a petition. 
  • Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also recommends that the expulsion be postponed because of South Sudan’s volatile conditions.
  • Though South Sudan is technically independent, it is a very dangerous place to live, and people continue to risk their lives by escaping to Israel as others are sent home. 
  • In South Sudan, the Murle and Lou Nuer tribes continue to fight in the Jonglei region, where thousands of people have been killed since South Sudan declared its independence. Although Sudan and South Sudan signed a peace treaty in 2005, Sudan recently bombed South Sudan’s South Kordofan, and much tension exists between the two entities because of South Sudan’s oil reserves. In South Sudan, one in three children suffers from malnutrition, only 50% of the population can access clean water, and it’s estimated that hunger and starvation will increase.
(Guarnieri, Mya. “South Sudanese get last-minute reprieve from deportation.” +972 1 Apr. 2012.)
(Hartman, Ben. “Court delays deportation of South Sudanese.” The Jerusalem Post29 Mar. 2012.)

Information about some of ARDC’s humanitarian aid efforts.

Footage from the ARDC’s joint Israeli-African seder from April 4, 2012.

Complicated Relationships with Civil Society Organizations

  • Asylum seekers’ relationships with Israeli CSOs vary tremendously.
  • Many single men and unaccompanied youth do not even know that CSOs exist, or think that they only provide services to families.
  • Some asylum seekers have strong connections with CSOs, have received vital help, and view them positively. CSOs help asylum seekers with medical, housing, legal, domestic, psychological, financial, and educational problems. Many asylum seekers volunteer at CSOs as translators; some are frustrated, however, that they are not paid for their time.
  • There is a general consensus though that the CSOs are unable to meet the needs of the refugee community; given the tens of thousands of refugees living with great need in Israel, it would take the force of a government to service all of their problems.
  • Asylum seekers lose hope in CSOs when they feel misunderstood or dismissed. 
  • Refugees do not want to be dependent on CSOs, and some feel like they’re only providing short-term help. A Darfuri man in a report published by ASSAF said “I think the organizations shouldn’t be handing out things to refugees, but should try and get to the bottom of the problem and ask why things are the way they are instead of offering an instant fix.”
  • Many think the organizations need to increase dialogue with refugees’ community leaders so that organizations can better understand what the people need and more effectively disseminate information to refugee populations.
  • Given the cultural differences between asylum seekers and Israelis, CSO workers try to be culturally sensitive but will sometimes deem refugee behaviors as bad or unhealthy, and refugees will disagree. This causes confusion and tensions.

(Paley, Maya. “Surviving in Limbo: Lived Experiences Among Sudanese and Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel.” Assaf June 2011. Print.)

(Schlagman/ARDC, Nic. Personal interview. 27 Mar. 2012.)

Remittances

  • Once in Israel, asylum seekers strive to quickly repay those who helped them pay smugglers to transport them to Israel.
  • The burden of repayment is great since most refugees struggle to provide for themselves in Israel, but their family members who gave them money to come desperately need to be paid back. They use their incomes to first care for themselves and their family, then to pay back smuggling fees, and then to support their families in their home countries. 
  • Asylum seekers use their incomes also to help free friends and relatives who are trapped in the Sinai by Bedouin kidnappers.
  • One of the reasons that many asylum seekers came to Israel was to send money home to their families, but have found that providing for one’s basic needs in Israel requires most of one’s small income. 

(Furst-Nichols, Rebecca, and Karen Jacobsen. “African Migration to Israel: Debt, Employment and Remittances.” Feinstein International Center, Tufts University Jan. 2011. Print.)

This is not a permanent place. If I knew it was a permanent place here, I could make plans. I’d like to get married, have a house, have children, and send money to my family. But now I don’t have a set life; I am not stable enough to plan for the future. Being here is like being closed in a dark room.

An Eritrean man interviewed in a report by the Feinstein International Center

(Furst-Nichols, Rebecca, and Karen Jacobsen. “African Migration to Israel: Debt, Employment and Remittances.” Feinstein International Center, Tufts University Jan. 2011. Print.)