South Sudanese Refugees Celebrate, but Are Wary of Quick Return to Homeland

Eli Yishai calls for Israel to negotiate return of refugees who have illegally crossed into Israel in recent years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced at yesterday's cabinet session that Israel was recognizing South Sudan. The new country's independence was declared Saturday following a January referendum.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai called for Israel to enter immediate negotiations with South Sudan over the return of refugees from the new country who have illegally crossed into Israel via the Egyptian border in recent years. It is estimated that about 8,500 refugees have come to Israel from Sudan, including about 2,000 from what is now South Sudan.

South Sudan Independence celebrations in Tel Aviv - Reuters - July 2011

Israeli groups providing assistance to the refugees said they were not surprised at the interior minister's support for negotiations for the refugees' return to South Sudan. The organizations said Israel should not act hastily in this regard.

Hundreds of South Sudanese in Israel marked the independence of the new country at a hall in south Tel Aviv. The celebration was tempered, however, by concern that the independence of South Sudan could change their status in Israel and that they might now be expelled. Most appear still to be afraid of returning home and are seeking to remain in Israel at least for a few months or even years, until the situation in South Sudan becomes clear.

For the moment the asylum seekers will not be returned to South Sudan, and this is not expected to change immediately until developments there are monitored for several months. Any change in status would be made by the Interior Ministry after considering the recommendations of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and even then, individuals would be given the opportunity to show their lives might be endangered by their return.

"The situation is a lot more complicated than what Eli Yishai is trying to present," said Yonatan Berman, the legal adviser to the Hotline for Migrant Workers. "They cannot all be put on planes tomorrow. A lot more investigation is required before they do that. If ultimately the investigation is carried out, there will be people who can be returned and people who can't be. When you return refugees, the first question is not whether their country of origin is prepared to accept them but whether they would be exposed to danger in their country of origin."

Berman asserted that refugees can be returned, but said it must be done in accordance with international law and individual refugees must be given the opportunity to present their personal circumstances to determine if they would be exposed to dangers on the repatriation.

South Sudanese refugee Gavriel Kavel, 28, crossed the border into Israel five years ago. He lives in Jerusalem, where he works as a cook in a hotel. "I was born in 1983, when the [Sudanese civil] war started. Fleeing, killing and refugees have been with me my whole life," he said.

He recounted that he had lost his parents and a twin brother in the fighting. "When I saw on television that South Sudan had declared independence, I couldn't believe it," he said, adding that that the new development gave him great hope.

Kavel expressed a desire to return to South Sudan, but not immediately, rather in a few years. "There has never been peace in Sudan. Nothing is developed and huge numbers of people live in poverty," he said, noting that he had to make certain it would be safe for him in South Sudan and that he could live there without fear. "I also have to make sure I won't have to flee again. It's not possible to expect the South Sudanese [in Israel] to go back at this moment."