Tel Aviv — Asylum-seekers from South Sudan living in Israel have until 31 March to return "home" or face deportation, but some have asked to stay, saying conditions are not yet conducive for their safe return.
According to Israeli Interior Minister Sabine Haddad, South Sudan nationals living in Israel will no longer be given protected status after the deadline. Until then, he added, they will be offered voluntary deportation and around US$1,300.
But Natalina, a 46-year-old single mother of three who arrived in Israel six years ago after spending 12 years is Cairo, said she would find it difficult to leave. "I don't want to take [the children] back because I know their lives will change dramatically," she told IRIN. "I have no one in Sudan, I know no one there - no family, nothing. I haven't been there in 18 years, I am a single Mum and I cannot afford to pay for medical treatment and education in South Sudan."
Natalina, whose three children aged 7, 9 and 15 are enrolled in Israeli schools, said she and some 700 other South Sudanese asylum-seekers received notice from the Ministry of Interior three months ago, asking them to report for repatriation by 31 March 2012 or be declared illegal aliens in Israel.
"I do not wish to see my children suffer. We've had meetings with the Israeli government but they will not give us answers. If they decide to do this (send asylum-seekers back) by 31 March, I will disappear, I cannot go back," said Natalina, a prominent leader of the small community of South Sudanese in Israel.
The Israeli authorities, in a January letter circulated among the South Sudanese community, said the new state was safe.
Over the past two years, some 1,200 asylum-seekers returned to South Sudan under a repatriation programme arranged by NGOs, even before that country got independence. Some sources said the returnees were being encouraged to leave by the harsh conditions in which the community lives, and the xenophobia directed at them by Israelis.
Last week, some South Sudanese and Israelis held a protest in Tel Aviv against "forced repatriation", saying it was against international treaties and contrary to new information about the state of security in South Sudan. The Israeli Foreign Ministry rejected the claims.
"We are going to be ready, we do not want to go back," said Simon, a South Sudanese community leader who left his country 17 years ago. "We don't want to stay in Israel, but our country is not safe, our children know nothing of Sudan."
Of the 700 asylum-seekers who received notice, he said, nearly 400 were children under 18. Israeli authorities believe the overall number of South Sudanese is around 1,000.
"We are not asking to stay forever, but to be given enough time until the new state recovers somewhat," Simon explained. "I know of many repatriated community members who were forced to flee again to the north, to Kenya or Uganda. South Sudan is only seven months old and still a failed state."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]