Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations in the Repatriation of Refugees

Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations in the Repatriation of Refugees

Article excerpt

Beginning in 2005, hundreds of Africans, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, entered Israel across the Egyptian border. They typically paid smugglers in Egypt to take them to the border, where they were able to climb over the border fence. By 2009 about 22,000 non-Jewish individuals without authorization had crossed over into Israel, where the government labeled them "infiltrators" and "illegal work migrants." Of these, 1,250 were from South Sudan. (1) Most of these migrants had left Sudan during or before the Second Sudanese Civil War, fought between the Sudanese government and the South Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) from 1983 to 2005. By 2012 the number stood at between 700 and 1000. Private organizations provided services to facilitate what they called "voluntary repatriation" back to South Sudan. I evaluate here the moral obligations of these organizations. I will ask whether they were exploitative, negligent, or perhaps complicit in broader Israeli government policies that may have been unjust.


In 2008 I founded a student group, Advocates for Asylum, and a website,, which sought to secure rights for refugees in Israel. In this capacity, I interviewed and engaged in informal conversations with South Sudanese refugees who resided in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Eilat, and Arad.

I learned from several of them that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) offered them assistance to return to South Sudan. It occurred to me that NGOs that helped South Sudanese to go back to a war-torn area did not necessarily serve the interest of these migrants, or, if they did, it was only to offer them a less horrible alternative to forced deportation from or imprisonment in Israel. I wondered whether a more humanitarian course might have included an attempt to legalize the presence of these refugees in Israel.

The Israeli government began a Refugee Status Determination (RSD) procedure for some asylum seekers in 2010, but not for the South Sudanese. According to the 1951 Convention for the Protection of Refugees, all signatory states, including Israel, must interview individuals and provide refugee status to those who can demonstrate that they have been persecuted because of their race, ethnicity, religion, or membership in a social group. South Sudanese, Sudanese, and Eritreans, however, were not allowed to access this procedure; they were given informal "group protection," which essentially consisted of a government decision prior to 2011 not to arrest or deport them but also not to give them legal states as refugees or residents. Special visas were issued, to be renewed every three months. (2)

Under such "group protection," South Sudanese had few rights. They could not work legally in Israel, although the relevant ruling, Government Decision 2104, (3) was not enforced before 2012. In the southern town of Eilat, the municipal public schools refused admission to non-Jewish African asylum seekers, including all South Sudanese children, a policy that was reversed after the Sudanese left. (4) In addition, all South Sudanese residents throughout Israel were denied medical insurance, (5) and employers often paid them less than minimum wage. (6)

In 2005 the Sudanese government in the north and SPLA in southern Sudan signed a comprehensive peace agreement. In July 2011 South Sudan officially became an independent country, with Juba its provisional capital. In January 2012, half a year after independence, Israel's Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA) sent an open letter to South Sudanese in Israel telling them "Now that South Sudan has become an independent state, it is time for you to return to your homeland." (7)

The government had persuaded some members of the South Sudanese community to gather the names and addresses of the South Sudanese in Israel. Officials then came to their houses with "voluntary repatriation" forms to sign. All had either to repatriate "voluntarily" by April 1, 2013, with a 1,000 Euro stipend, or to face detention and deportation in April without any stipend. …

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