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Self-deportation: Sudan style

The Israeli government has figured out how to get rid of Sudanese refugees without really deporting them

On Christmas Eve, a day after policemen had rounded up asylum seekers in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park during their holiday celebrations, Prime Minister Netanyahu convened a discussion on “progress in the process of repatriating illegal work infiltrators to their countries of origin.” Two days ago, following the arrest of an Eritrean asylum seeker for the rape of an 83-year-old woman, hundreds protested the presence of ‘infiltrators’ in Israel, calling for the deportation of all because of the crime of one. This is despite the fact that the crime rate among asylum seekers remains below the national crime rate and despite the fact that the crime rate is hardly relevant: there is no justifiable reason to deport all asylum seekers, including small infants, because some asylum seekers commit crimes.

Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Last week I asked “A,” who owns a successful computer store, “Would you ever voluntarily repatriate to Sudan?” A, who is from Darfur, has a strong and clear-cut case for asylum, and he is a leader in the refugee community, teaching computer classes in a school he set up a few years ago. He also has a family, with children in elementary school. I therefore assumed the answer to my question would be no.

“Yes,” he answered.

“Why?” I asked.

In 2007, Prime Minister Olmert had declared that there was not a single refugee other than 498 Darfurians in the country at the time. All who entered after these 498 refugees, and all who had fled from other war-torn areas or who were persecuted, were not “real refugees.” It was frustrating, because a random number could not set a precedent for an individually-based Refugee Status Determination process. However, at least people like A would have some sort of status. He was one of the approximately 500 to receive an A5 visa, which was renewable every year.

“A5 used to be one year,” he explained, “and then two years later it’s just half a year, and then in 2013 it might be just three months.” The shortness seems to have reached a tipping point: even those who were informally welcomed as refugees in 2007 – let alone those who were never declared refugees – are suddenly all viewed as infiltrators, and this impacts choices to return. Israel has already declared that roughly 1,000 Northern Sudanese and Eritreans have returned. The vast majority are Sudanese and A predicts the number of Sudanese returnees is now closer to roughly 2,000. This number is separate from the number of South Sudanese who were deported in June 2012.

“Instead of forward we go backwards. There is no policy for refugees and that makes things complicated for the government. They cannot decide but keep changing.”

With everything changing, A is the pinnacle of stability in a community that faces constant uncertainty. His computer shop was thriving as refugees learned computer skills in the school he set up. Literally thousands of refugees learned how to communicate with loved ones around the world and bought computers to communicate regularly. Hewlett-Packard, seeing that he was ordering and selling a record number of computers, gave him a prize. His children attend school, his daughter works for a local NGO, and he has an outlook on life that is perfectly logical, reasonable, and responsible, contributing to his success as a social and business entrepreneur.

I therefore asked: “Why not wait for deportation?” It seemed like a reasonable question. Though he does not plan on returning now, to even consider returning voluntarily did not seem wise. After all, return is certainly risky, and deportation is not 100% certain.

“Because,” he explained, “I will ask the UN to send me to an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Sudan.”

IDP camps in Sudan are known for having inadequate medical services worse than services in Israel. Mortality rates remain above emergency level and certainly worse than mortality rates in Israeli prisons, and IDP residents are routinely exposed to extortion, violence, and recruitment by a variety of armed actors, leading to an overall increase  in armed self-defense,’ according to a Small Arms Survey report.

When I asked A about choosing to face such perilous conditions, he agreed, “They are worse than bad but I have no choice…They might deport me to Sudan and then I would be arrested. My name is everywhere – I am scared for my name. I would rather be in the IDP camps.”

Deportation by Israeli authorities, he explained, may mean being deported to the airport in Khartoum, where police authorities would await him, arrest him, and perhaps kill him and his family. He already has one friend who disappeared upon his return to Sudan. He knows this because his friend had returned from Israel with non-Darfurians who were not arrested and stayed in contact with A.

If A independently and voluntarily returned on his own, or with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, then he would be brought to an area from which he could reach an IDP camp with relative ease. There, notwithstanding the dangers, he still had a better chance at survival than being deported and delivered directly into the hands of government agents.

Indeed, as “Y,” another Sudanese refugee, pointed out, even if one does make it back to one’s home village, there are problems with relatives there. “The relatives know they were in Israel.” Y explained that relatives are often unaware of the dangers of casually mentioning a returnees’ previous presence in Israel.  “It is difficult to control relatives,” he said. “They don’t know anything. They don’t know what is forbidden so they just say they were in Israel like it is nothing.”

This logic was depressingly airtight.

This was not the logic of refugees who choose to return from Israeli detention, who forgo food security and medical care in Israeli prison because of the intense psychological stress of living without freedom or the ability to send money to loved ones for basic food and shelter. A recent Maariv article cites cases where even refugees who arrive at the police station to report a crime have been sent to administrative detention on suspicion of infiltration. In those cases, refugees may face even greater risks towards life and freedom after return compared to staying in Israel; they have reasons not to return, even if their return is a type of coercion. This is not the case with A.

There are other reasons to choose repatriation. Y, who was a successful architect in Khartoum before fleeing, and who now works 16-20 hour work days to save up money for his and his wife’s education, also does not want to wait until deportation. Racism in Israel is high, and he does not want to leave Israel with a “bad feeling” after having lived here seven years. Though Y has relatives in South Sudan, Australia, and South Africa, and hopes to find safety and security in one of these countries, others may consider return to Sudan for similar reasons of racism and avoiding the feelings that come with deportation. These individuals may face greater risks towards life and freedom after return.

In contrast, with A, his reason for return was precisely because of the greater risks towards life and freedom if he stayed in Israel, because of the risks of later deportation. This was not a decision made as a result of stress or a will to avoid the trauma of deportation; it was a decision made as a result of a perfect cost-benefit logic, to save his own life and the life of his family.

Some reporters have been noting, as an aside, that ‘Israel cannot legally deport Sudanese, “due to a risk to their lives in their home countries.”

Yet, Prime Minister Netanyahu has set up a system of repatriation that forces refugees to choose between certainly facing tremendous risks now or possibly even greater risks later. His calculated system of incentivizing such risk-taking means that those who know that life is safer in Israel, and who are not in detention, may still get on a plane to a country where they do not have access to medical care, freedom from persecution, or security.

Israel cannot legally “deport” Sudanese refugees, but Israel can and did create a structure where not returning is more dangerous than staying.

About the Author
Mollie Gerver is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics where she researches the repatriation and resettlement of African migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Israel.