Simon Deng, Darfur activist and escaped slave from South Sudan, just returned from a trip to Israel, where he was advocating for the South Sudanese Christians there. He tells me something this Christmas day that is very sad: the mayor of the Southern Israeli town of Eilat has banned South Sudanese Christian refugees from working in the hotels there.
“Even the people in hotel management [in Eilat] say, ‘How can you just throw out these hardworking people?’” Deng says. “It will not even be good for the hotel industry.”
According to Deng, this development reflects a change in the status of the Christian refugees, about 2800 of whom have entered Israel from across the Egyptian border since 2005. Unlike the approximately 500 Muslims from Darfur, Sudan who have crossed the Egyptian border into Israel during this same period, the Christians have not been granted residency in Israel. That means that while the Darfuris are safe from deportation, the Christians exist in a state of insecurity, unsure whether they will be deported back to Sudan, where visiting Israel is punished by death, or Egypt. (The latter possibility is not much better than the former since in December 2005, in front of the United Nations High Commission of Refugees office, Egyptian police bludgeoned to death approximately 30 unarmed Sudanese refugees, including women and children).
The upshot is the South Sudanese Christians are no longer officially classified as refugees by the Israeli government, according to Deng. They are residing conditionally in Israel, and must re-apply every three months for permission to stay. Then, Deng says that until they are re-granted permission, they must stop working. This requirement virtually guarantees some level of unemployment and difficulty for the South Sudanese in Israel.
“A person looks for a job–maybe it takes a month–works for two, three months and then they have to stop working,” Deng says.
While in Israel, Deng met with former MK Natan Sharansky and tried to impress upon him the great need for attention to this refugee crisis. It is not only a matter of humanitarian concern, according to Deng, but should be one of pragmatic concern for Israel, too: a 2005 peace agreement hammered out by the Bush administration gave some autonomy to South Sudan, and Sudanese Christians have high hopes for independence in the coming years.
The Israeli government, in helping the South Sudanese Christians at this crucial time, will be sowing seeds of goodwill that will bear fruit when South Sudan becomes an independent nation, Deng believes.
“Don’t miss the [potential for the] future relationship between Israel and South Sudan,” he says.
Although of course the Darfuri refugees are victims of brutality beyond imagination and deserve asylum, it is ironic that Israel is giving them preferential treatment over people—the Christians of South Sudan—who have also experienced brutality at the hands of Sudan’s Islamist government, and who are natural allies of the state of Israel.
“It is very sad for Christians to see themselves left out in the rain by people they consider brothers and sisters,” Deng said this Christmas day.
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