Text size
related tags

Several days ago, 10 people from southern Sudan - six adults and four children - boarded a plane at Ben-Gurion International Airport bound for an African country, from where they would continue toward Sudan. They were accompanied by a representative of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

The Foreign Ministry and representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees were aware of the departure and its circumstances. The ministry has been involved in ICEJ activities and the refugees were repatriated out of their own free will, the ministry added.

However, southern Sudanese community leaders in Israel says the ICEJ's motives are improper, and that the repatriated Sudanese may face the death penalty under Sudanese law if the authorities discover they were in Israel.

The Hotline for Migrant Workers says 17,000 African refugees have entered Israel via the Egyptian border since 2006, including 5,000 Sudanese migrants. The refugees endured many months of exhausting travel to escape the war in Sudan, and include 3,000 southern Sudanese Christians who currently live in South Tel Aviv, Eilat and Arad.

Haaretz has learned that the International Christian Embassy, which calls itself a Christian Zionist organization, is trying to convince many of the refugees to return to Sudan, despite the substantial danger they face there.

The ICEJ's stated goals include returning the Jews to their homeland in keeping with the group's interpretation of the scriptures.

The ICEJ "approaches people from our community, primarily those who don't speak English and barely understand them, and tell them they hate us in Israel and we have no future here," said a leader of the Sudanese community in Israel. "They have us sign forms and promise us work or training if we agree to return to Sudan. In fact, there has been neither training nor work."

Despite the discontent within the Sudanese community over the prospect of repatriating its members, others say that many refugees want to return home.

Simona Halperin, a Foreign Ministry official, said the ICEJ told her ministry that some Sudanese here want to return home, and that some had contacted smugglers in an effort to do so.

An ICE representative who had accompanied the group of 10 said the project was undertaken only after they verified that every person wanted to return.

She added that she received nearly daily requests from Sudanese refugees in Israel who wanted to return home, and that almost 2 million refugees have returned to southern Sudan since a cease-fire was signed three years ago, making that area autonomous.

Last week's departure was a pilot, and participants were interviewed by a Canadian judge to verify they were returning voluntarily.

A representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said the organization interviewed all six adults who left Israel last week, and said each expressed a desire to return to their homeland.

A worker at the Hotline for Migrant Workers expressed support for the repatriation process, but added, "The treatment of the refugees is very problematic. They are not allowed to work here, but it is impossible to expel them. Some have approached us for help in returning home, but from what we know from UN reports, the situation in southern Sudan is still highly problematic and their lives are in danger, especially because they are returning from Israel."

A Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed to Haaretz that the state is involved in repatriating Sudanese refugees, but said the operation was being run by a private organization because Sudan is an enemy country.

The process is being carried out in keeping with international conventions on refugees, and the refugees are not being repatriated if they would face mortal danger, he added.

Many members of the local Sudanese community are unhappy with the repatriation, saying no one can guarantee the safety of those who return.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said yesterday that the ministry knows refugees may face hardships and dangers if it is revealed where they were, and is in contact with an organization that will supervise and report on the refugees' integration in their villages.