African refugees in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv.
African refugees in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Israel and South Sudan are working out a deal for the return of some 1,500 refugees currently residing in this country to their homes in the African republic, starting April 1. Foreign Ministry sources in Jerusalem relay that Israel's Ambassador to South Sudan, Dan Shaham, has met with the republic's vice president, Riek Machar, to coordinate the return.

Israel's actions come in the midst of a recent extension by the United Nations and United States to protect South Sudanese citizens until May 2013. According to a UN report and evidence on the ground, problems still exist in South Sudan, including human rights violations and ongoing fighting.

The Foreign Ministry sources say that refugees have returned voluntarily to South Sudan in the past. This happened on a small scale and did not necessitate coordination with South Sudan's government. As a result of the large number of refugees now in question, and also due to the fact that most of the South Sudanese citizens would not voluntarily return to their home country, the current plan requires coordination between the two countries.

Following the declaration of independence of South Sudan in July 2011, and the visit of South Sudan President Salva Kiir to Israel that December, it was decided that the country's citizens would be able to return to their countries without fear. The Interior Ministry announced that every citizen who returned voluntarily would be granted $1,300, and that anyone that did not go back of their own accord would be expelled. In late January, the Interior Ministry's Population and Immigration Authority announced it would remove, at the end of March, the group protection granted to South Sudanese asylum seekers who arrived in Israel after escaping war in their country.

Shaham resides in Jerusalem and travels to South Sudan's capital, Juba, every few months. In a few weeks, he will complete his term and will be replaced by the diplomat Haim Koren. The Israeli ambassador traveled to Juba last week, and stayed in South Sudan for a number of days. The sources say that one of his goals during his visit to Juba was to review conditions in the country, and determine whether they are suited for the absorption of the refugees who now reside in Israel. Shaham also tried to coordinate the dates for their return with South Sudanese officials.

Shaham told Vice President Machar that Israel is committed to giving professional training to these South Sudanese citizens before their return, so as to help them find work in their home country and support themselves there. The vice president also asked that Israel establish in Juba a Hebrew language school for returned refugees who are not fluent in the native tongue.

Meanwhile, a United Nations report and evidence on the ground showed that the situation in South Sudan has not changed substantially. According to those sources, human rights violations continue, fighting is ongoing and there is a severe shortage of food and water, which is likely to lead to a humanitarian crisis in the country. However, unlike the stance of the United Nations and United States, who extended the protection for South Sudan citizens until May 2013, assessments by the Foreign Ministry show that the situation in the state is safe enough.