Sudanese refugees in Israel in 2007. Photo by Alex Levac
Text size

Khaled Lurla says he would rather go to jail in Israel than be forced to return to his country of birth, Sudan.

Lurla, who has been in Israel since 2007, when he fled the fighting in southern Sudan, lives in Tel Aviv with his two children.

In April, the Israeli government plans to expel asylum-seekers like Lurla back from whence they came, with officials arguing that since South Sudan declared independence last July, the decades-old civil war, in which 2.5 million people were killed and five million displaced, was over and refugees from the area could return.

But Lurla insists the situation is not safe, despite the country's newly won independence. "In a place where there's no food, no water, no electricity, no hospital and no school, but only war, there's no future for anyone," says Lurla. "I'd rather sit in jail and know that my children are in a safe place."

Teresa Galwalk, 36, has been in Israel four years with her husband and six children, aged 3-18. They also fled southern Sudan because of the battles there, and can't fathom what would happen to their children if they returned.

Her elderly parents fled their Sudan home a year ago because of the violence, and live in a United Nations refugee camp "without which they would have died. They say it isn't safe to walk outside, there's no water and food outside the camp and that even in the camp there isn't enough food."

While the Israeli government argues that it's safe to return to South Sudan, United Nations briefings, reports by aid organizations and testimonies from the area paint a different picture: They say battles are still raging in the region and people are not safe. What's more, there's famine and a lack of basic infrastructure.

A report by Human Rights Watch last month said that despite South Sudan's declaration of independence, there remain at least six armed militias in the region that regularly attack and pillage all over the country, and thousands have died or were forced out of their homes. According to Al-Jazeera and BBC reports, some 3,000 people were killed in the last two months in the eastern part of South Sudan, and 140,000 were left destitute.

Many of these attacks are directed at aid organizations and their equipment, exacerbating the situation, media reports say.

Forecasts for 2012 say that the continuing instability will bring about a worsening of conditions. Both the United Nations and the United States have recently extended their protection of South Sudan residents until May 2013.

But the Foreign Ministry says it conducted its own investigation, and has determined that the situation in South Sudan was safe enough to begin the refugees' repatriation.

Thus, late last month, the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority declared that the blanket protection that had been given to some 1,000 south Sudanese in Israel was being lifted. The authority stated that anyone who left voluntarily by the end of March would be given $1,300. After that, the deportations will begin.

Lurla cannot understand this.

"Friends of mine who went back were forced to flee to the north because of the severe conditions, and there a woman was beaten because she was wearing pants," said Lurla. Sending them back now, he said, "is sending us back to die."

In addition to violence, the South Sudanese must cope with a lack of basic provisions. Many are starving and are totally reliant on aid agencies, which are hard-pressed to meet the demand. Some 50 different aid groups are involved in 30 projects to bring humanitarian aid, including food and water, to the populace.

A recent UNICEF report said that only 34 percent of the population has access to potable water, and many must walk long distances to get to it. Only 15 percent have access to toilet facilities that meet basic sanitary standards.

If that weren't enough, the aid groups and UN organizations are bracing for a mass return of some half a million former residents of South Sudan who had fled to the north, but who have been informed by the government in Khartoum, in northern Sudan, that they are going to lose their citizenship by April 8. Humanitarian groups say they will be hard-pressed to provide aid to so many hundreds of thousands of people.

Galwalk can't understand why Israel won't allow them to remain until the situation in South Sudan improves.

"My friend who went back last year had to flee her village; there was shooting all the time and no way to get food or water," she said. "What will be with my children there?"

Lurla and several friends who have children in school are organizing to try to at least get the deportations put off until the end of the school year.

"We are all afraid for our lives [if we return] there," Lurla said. "We are asking the government to allow us to stay until the situation calms down. Even if that request is rejected, we would like our children to at least finish the school year, which they won't be able to do in South Sudan.

"Just yesterday my son asked me why they are expelling us and what will happen to us there," he said. "I didn't know what to say; I was afraid to say anything."