South Sudanese Demand Back Pay Before Flight

Nongovernmental organizations say many migrants returning to Africa are still owed back wages and, in some cases, social benefits and severance pay.

The first flight carrying migrant workers back to South Sudan is scheduled to leave tonight, with 120 passengers on board. But officials at the Saharonim detention center say they see no signs of impending movement from the intended passengers, all of whom have "volunteered" to return to Africa, according to the Interior Ministry.

Many of the migrants, and the nongovernmental organizations aiding them, say their employers still owe them back wages and, in some cases, social benefits and severance pay.

Government officials say the group will be brought to Ben-Gurion International Airport tonight, where they will receive immunizations before boarding a Bulgarian passenger plane leased by the state, accompanied by representatives from South Sudan.

Similar flights have been taking place since South Sudan declared its independence, around a year ago, but this will be the first once since the major campaign to round up South Sudanese began, last week.

Most of the passengers are families that agreed to leave voluntarily after the men were rounded up. More than 300 African migrants who were arrested over the past week remain in detention facilities around the country.

The Interior Ministry's immigrantion authority said on Thursday that it would extend the deadline for South Sudanese to apply for voluntary repatriation in return for a cash allowance - $1,300 for adults and $500 for minors.

Most of the migrants who were placed in detention before being able to collect wages owed them are due back pay for a number of days or weeks, but some were rounded up by the Interior Ministry's Oz immigration police unit with months of wages outstanding.

Some migrants have worked for the same employer for years, and by law have social benefits and severance pay coming to them. Many of the migrants who have been placed in the Saharonim detention facility, in the Negev, have told administrators that they will not leave unless they receive all the money they are owed.

Around half of the migrants who are scheduled for repatriation to South Sudan came to Saharonim voluntarily, after the round-up began. They now say they feel they were deceived. Many have complained to Kav La'oved, a workers' rights organization, according to officials there. The organization has begun recruiting volunteers who are willing to contact employers and collect salaries on behalf of the migrants.

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Saharonim Prison - Eliyahu Hershkovitz - June 2012
Eliyahu Hershkovitz