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Am I My Brother�s Keeper? Israel�s Role in Saving Christians from Southern Sudan

By Daniel Vahab

David Saranga, Consul for Media and Public Affairs for Consulate General of Israel in New York (left) and acclaimed human rights advocate Simon Deng.

There is great turmoil surrounding the crisis in Sudan. And do not be misled into thinking this refers to the crisis in Darfur, which is located in western Sudan and receives a ton of media attention. Rather, we are referring to the crisis in Southern Sudan where the Christians who live there being persecuted by the Muslims from the North representing the Khartoum-based Islamist government. This situation has led to over two million South Sudanese killed and over four million persons becoming displaced. Among the countries that have accepted these refugees are: Egypt, United States, Norway, Australia, Canada, and surprisingly, the place many of them have chosen to go … Israel.

According to Harvard’s Middle East Journal, there are approximately 1,200 to 1,400 Sudanese Christians currently under the protection of the State of Israel. 

Why would the Christian Southern Sudanese prefer migrating to Israel over other countries nearby? The answer is partly because the Christian Southern Sudanese minority and the Jewish majority in Israel share something in common—there are ongoing religious conflicts between them and their Arab Muslim counterparts.   As Simon Deng, human rights advocate and former Sudanese slave, explained during an interview with the Jewish Post, “They would have gone to Lebanon and elsewhere, but they went to Israel because they felt they could identify with Israel … and because they are both people of the book.”

There are also other factors that have discouraged Sudanese refugees from going to certain countries.  Reports have circulated that Egypt has engaged in human rights abuses against Sudanese attempting to immigrate to Israel through Egypt. According to Al-Ahram Weekly, an Egyptian newspaper, from an article entitled, “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow”, by Gamal Nkrumah, dated August 2-8, 2007, “Of the Sudanese refugees now resident in Israel, 71 per cent report verbal and physical abuse as the main reason for their fleeing Egypt.” The article went further in quoting one of the first Sudanese men to cross the border into Israel: "In Israel, Sudanese can earn $4 per hour. In Egypt, such a large wage is unheard of. Moreover, medical care and educational opportunities are far better in Israel than in Egypt."  

Israel is faced with a daunting dilemma: on one hand, the Sudanese Christian refugees are draining the already scarce and needed Israeli resources, so some claim that Israel should return the Sudanese Christian refugees to their homeland. On the other hand, some cite the disturbing fact that since over six million Jews were killed during the Nazi holocaust of WWII, Israel has a moral obligation to provide a safe haven for the Sudanese Christians seeking refuge from genocide.

While Israel continues to grapple with this dilemma regarding the Sudanese Christians a bold step was taken in 2007, under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Israel granted transient residency to 500 Darfurian refugees. Israel issued them ID cards making them transient residents which allowed them to receive social benefits and health care benefits.

In contrast, non-Darfurian asylum-seekers (those Christians from South Sudan) have been classified by Israel as economic migrants instead of refugees fleeing genocide who are granted protective status. Majier Pap, a representative of Southern Sudanese refugees living in Israel, reacted to this as reported in the Jerusalem Post: “We cannot go back, and the law now proposed will present us with a choice of jail, deadly persecution in Egypt, or death at the hands of the Sudanese government.” 

According to David Saranga, Consul for Media and Public Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York, Israel has taken in 15,000 refugees worldwide. He added, “This issue is above all a moral and humanitarian imperative to save lives, and it is this sense of responsibility that fuels Israel’s efforts to aid the Sudanese refugees.” To help alleviate the problem Israel has even gone so far as to initiate a proposal to offer monetary compensation to African states willing to accept refugees currently in Israel. According to a Sudan Tribune article, on June 14, 2008, the Israeli foreign ministry contacted Ethiopia, Uganda, the Ivory Coast and Benin to discuss the issue of the Sudanese refugees.

The apparent double standard that focuses more on the Darfurian refugees than on the Southern Sudanese refugees has seemingly been given official approval by passage of United Nations Resolution 1590 to support the implementation of a peace agreement. This resolution highlighted the Darfur region but failed to address the Southern Sudan region, thereby reducing the legitimacy, in political terms, of the Southern Sudanese Christians whose lives are at risk. 

Though Israel has yet to properly resolve the plight of the South Sudanese Christian refugees in its country, Simon Deng related the following comments of a ten year old girl he met in Southern Sudan in 2006: “That little girl’s dream, in a place with no running water and no school, was to go to school and become a doctor. And after that, she will visit Israel.” Simon added, “I was shocked at why she wanted to visit Israel and her answer was that Israelis are our people. That little girl did not know how to read and probably will never learn. So to anyone in a government position, I ask you to think about the dream of that little girl with regard to the Southern Sudanese people not being welcome in the State of Israel.” 

Mr. Deng has been actively bringing his message to those leaders in Israel and the United States who can do what is necessary to keep South Sudanese Christians safe in Israel.


We asked several individuals a series of questions regarding the Southern Sudanese crisis and Israel’s and Egypt’s roles in the crisis. These individuals included:

- David Saranga, Consul for Media and Public Affairs for the Consulate General of Israel in New York

- Scott Edward, "Country Specialist for Sudan for Amnesty International, USA" for 5 years (2003-2008), *(Note: The responses below are Scott Edwards alone, and don’t represent Amnesty International in any way)

- Walter Slocombe, former director of national security and defense in the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. organization charged with overseeing Iraq's reconstruction and transition to democratic rule. He also served in the Pentagon as under-secretary of defense for policy,1994 to 2001. *(Biographical information obtained from Frontline PBS.)

- Beth Gilinsky, founder of the Jewish Action Alliance, an outspoken and independent organization representing local, national, and international Jewish affairs.

- Simon Deng, human rights activist

- Congressman Gary Ackerman, House Foreign Affairs Committee for the Middle East. Several requests were made for his comments. There was no response.

Here are there responses to questions we posed:

What do you say to those who say it's hypocritical for the Jewish people, representing the state of Israel, who've undergone the highest human rights violation with the Holocaust, and have said, with the world community, "Never Again", with allowing genocide to happen and turning their backs on Sudanese Christians seeking refuge in Israel?

DS: “The State of Israel has absorbed millions of new immigrants including those from countries where they were at risk.” The Government does what it can to assist the refugees. “Every person who crosses the border from Egypt and enters Israel is processed to ensure his status. Those who satisfy the necessary criteria have been absorbed in Israel and, to date, Israel has absorbed several hundred refugees from Darfur.  However, many are not from Darfur, but rather those coming from countries across Africa, Europe, and Asia seeking better economic conditions. We are talking about nearly 15,000 who have illegally entered the country, of which 3-4% are from Darfur. It is also important to note that some of the Sudanese who arrived in Israel have already been recognized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cairo and were granted status by the Egyptian authorities, and chose to arrive to Israel despite receiving the official recognition by the UNHCR in Egypt.”

SE: “Although there are migrants and refugees from South Sudan who are “fleeing” the horrendous conditions they face in Cairo, the most egregious returns have been of Darfuri seeking refuge from the turmoil that has engulfed the West of Sudan, spilled over the border into Chad, and limited available flight options for millions. These people happen to be Muslim. Scores have been shot dead at the Egypt-Israeli border, and both states are complicit in a coordinated attempt to violate the 1951 Refugee Convention. That Convention, by the way, was adopted in response to the millions upon millions of displaced people in Europe following WWII, many of them fleeing persecution by the Nazi regime.” 

WS: “Israel's legal obligation to asylum-seekers and refugees under international law is no greater, and no less, than any other member of the international community. Of course, Israel is one of many countries that have special historical, cultural and ethical reasons to be particularly conscious of the importance and value of that obligation and more resources to meet that obligation than many countries -- but it does not therefore have any unique responsibility.” 

BG: “The Jews aren’t the cause of the genocide. It’s the Islamic Sudanese Arab Muslims who aren’t allowing these people to live.” 

Considering the financial burden and the fact that Israel is a small nation with problems of its own, at what point should Israel stop allowing displaced Sudanese refugees a home?

DS: “Israel has committed to accept up to 500-600 refugees from Darfur on a permanent basis. Though that number has not yet been reached, Israel has to date taken in numbers of refugees proportionately much higher than most Western countries and has granted 600 refugees temporary resident status.  The Israeli government is actively working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and NGOs involved in the matter in order to help those who continue to flee Darfur.  This issue is above all a moral and humanitarian imperative to save lives, and it is this sense of responsibility that fuels Israel’s efforts to aid the Sudanese refugees.”

SE: “Every state has problems of its own, but that doesn’t lessen the onus governments have to protect people, whether their own citizens, or those who cannot avail themselves of the protection of their state of origin. It is established international law. Further, the financial burden is a red herring. Were Israel to adhere to its obligations under international law, it would find good will and support in dealing with the displaced. But the first step is to stop civilians fleeing persecution from being shot in the back at the Egyptian-Israeli border, or imprisoning asylum seekers as criminals.”

WS: “I don't have enough knowledge of the facts in this case to be able to comment on the specific question, but Israel has a responsibility to receive people with a good faith claim to asylum.  Other countries also have responsibilities to assist any country that holds significant numbers of asylees -- and there are rules concerning the relative responsibility of the country into which such persons enter initially vis a vis the obligations of those they arrive in subsequently, and the responsibility of other countries to accept refugees that have been granted asylum in another country.  It is unacceptable for the whole burden to fall on whatever country turns out to be the first safe place for refugees to shelter or on countries that may have a more generous attitude toward subsequent entrants.  The over-riding principle, however, seems to me to be that there is an obligation not to forcibly return people to a country where they will be persecuted.”

BG: “I’m troubled by the fact that according to Simon Deng, acclaimed human rights activist, Israel isn’t allowing the Sudanese Christians refuge but they are allowing the Muslims from Sudan refuge. From a humanitarian point of view, Israel would benefit from taking in Sudanese Christians. They are among the strongest supporters of Israel in the world. They understand the Israeli-Jewish struggle with Muslims because they’ve been discriminated as Christians. From a practical point of view, you want those who are going to be strong supporters of a Jewish state and good citizens.”   

What do you say to those Israelis who point to the fact that Sudan is an enemy state, a Muslim state that poses a threat to Israel, in their argument to kick out the Sudanese?

DS: “The arrival of people of unknown origins on its borders presents Israel with a legitimate security issue.  Sudanese who come from Darfur fleeing for their lives do not pose a security threat, but Sudan itself remains a high-risk country from a security standpoint and, of course, has no relations with the State of Israel.  Nonetheless, in responding to this moral obligation, Israel extends its hand to those refugees who seek shelter in the country.”

SE: “Allied European countries that refused refugees from Germany, Austria, and Poland were guilty of a comparable analytic naiveté, and moral turpitude.”

WS: “Israel, like any other state holding refugees, is entitled to take measures to insure that refugees not abuse their status --and that includes protecting against the possibility of  "plants."  For example, it could conduct individuals "vetting" or review of status and/or require all Sudanese refugees to remain in camps (providing adequate support for those camps).  However, a concern about the bona fides of some of the refugees does not justify mass deportations or exclusions.”

BG: “It’s an internal problem that Israelis must determine. In the general sense, you want to bring in good people who are hard workers and not people who want to blow up Israeli buses with Jewish children on board. Sudanese Christians are peaceful, hard-working Christians and by bringing them in it will show [good will] and help the state of Israel survive.”

What do you say to the role Egypt is playing in being a conduit for the Sudanese people on their way to Israel? Is Egypt cooperating with food and shelter or is it resorting to imprisonment and death for the Sudanese?

SD: “Egypt isn’t cooperating in any form. They are the ones who kill these people in front the offices in Cairo. They are already killing these people on the border. We have hundreds of refuges in Egyptian jails. I’m not asking Israel to allow anyone new to come, but just to solve the problem of those already in.” 

DS: “There are issues along the Israel-Egypt border involving the smuggling of drugs, women and weapons as well as the infiltration of potential terrorists. The governments of Israel and Egypt continue to coordinate policy on these and other matters, with the goal being to curb the number of people attempting to enter Israel.”

SE: “Neither state has lived up to its obligation under international law. The Egyptian government at the border is responsible for scores of shootings of refugees. It is an intellectually unpleasant enterprise to think about which government is more in violation of international laws, and the basic tenants of humanity.”

WS: “I don't have access to any information that would permit me to have a view on the question of  what Egypt is doing or not doing regarding Sudanese who enter Egypt initially and then go, or seek to go, on to other countries. In general, international law imposes considerable requirements on countries of first refuge, and when that country is Egypt, it should meet those requirements.  Other countries and international institutions should provide needed assistance to countries of first refuge.”

What action, as far as an immigration policy, can be taken and be whom to solve the crisis?

SD: “I told the Foreign Minister of Israel that we should open other states up that can help. This is because Israel is a tiny state with problems of its own; it’s not a state where we can keep everyone.” 

SE: “The Israeli government must admit and process asylum seekers in accordance with International law. With deference to their need to protect their own borders, the Egyptian and Israeli governments must allow asylum seekers and refugees safe passage across the border, and allow them access to asylum.”

BG: “In pursuing there immigration policy, they must consider the following two points: first and foremost, what’s good for the country—bringing in peaceful people who will contribute to the economy; second, the humanitarian considerations.”

WS: “At an admittedly general level, my answer to this is that the international community -- under the leadership of international institutions like the UNHCR -- needs to do a great deal more to insure that the burden of taking care of people with legitimate claims to asylum does not fall disproportionately on either the state of first refuge (which may well be Egypt in this case) or on countries that for various reasons have a more generous entry policy than others.  Unless the international community meets this responsibility, countries of first refuge will find themselves under heavy pressure to exclude refugees, and there will be a general increase in restrictive entry practices by all countries --all to the detriment of the interests of refugees.”

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