sudan - Daniel Bar-On - December 14, 2010
Garren, Daniel, Manuel: 3 children originally from Sudan, studying at the Bialik-Rogozin school. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Activists on behalf of Sudanese migrants in south Tel Aviv said Tuesday they found it difficult to believe that, as an Israeli official has said, the 150 asylum seekers deported to Sudan on Monday night - one-third of whom were minors - went willingly.

"The lives of our friends who were forced to leave are now at risk," one activist said.

The migrant advocates said it was meaningless to say the deportees left willingly, since people who have nowhere to live or work, and who fear that they will end up in jail if they refuse the government offer, aren't exercising true freedom of choice.

The activists said they fear the Sudanese government's treatment of the returning refugees and are concerned about what will happen to them in light of the violence in the country.

The United Nations confirmed this week that forces of the government in Khartoum bombed southern Sudan last week. A referendum planned for next month on whether to secede from the north and declare independence is liable to reignite the conflict.

"I saw people a lot more scared than I thought they would be," said Rami Godovich, a coordinator at Tel Aviv's Levinsky Library, who is also a prominent advocate of refugees. "There were a lot of children there, but the sight was not the happy one you see when people are going home of their own will."

A Sudanese asylum seeker who has been living in Israel for three years said he was offered a trip back to Sudan a week and a half ago, by women who identified themselves as representatives of the French Embassy Organization.

"They came up to me in church and said they had a way to bring people back to Sudan," he said. "I wasn't surprised because my girlfriend left four months ago in a similar situation. She told me they promised her $5,000, but when she got to Sudan, she just got $500. A short time later she fled to Uganda and told me not to consider returning because the situation is still bad."

Another issue clouding the issue of choice is the age of the refugees.

Haaretz has discovered that one-third of those deported Monday are minors. Some were sent back with their mothers, while their fathers remained in Israel.

In addition, while Israel said the deportees had been interviewed by psychologists and undergone an organized selection process, that is brought into question by the discovery that some of them didn't find out they were going until a few days before the flight.

At least five of the minors were enrolled in a Tel Aviv school. The students and teachers at the Bialik-Rogozin School were left frustrated and in unnecessary pain because they were not given a chance to prepare for the children's departure, the principal said yesterday.

The youngest of the deportees attending the school was in kindergarten and the oldest was in ninth grade. Some had been at the school for the past three years.

Although the deportation was planned for months, initial news of it did not reach the school until early this week.

"They didn't give us a chance to part from the children," said Karen Tal, the principal. Tal said the school employs psychologists and guidance counselors who could have helped prepare the other children for their peers' disappearance.

"We have been caring for these children for a long time, and it took a lot of time to bring back their smiles and their faith in human beings," said Tal. "If the process was voluntary, why was such secrecy necessary?"