ARAD, NEGEV DESERT — Michael Dobuol Kuany didn’t want to go back to South Sudan, but his pride kept him from staying in Israel, a country that didn’t want him.
So in June 2012, Kuany packed his bags and returned to the country of his birth. A year and a half later, he was dead, friends say, killed in the clashes that continue to ravage the world’s youngest country.
The details of Kuany’s death are sparse. According to aid workers currently in South Sudan, he had been staying at a UN camp in the Bahr al Jabal area of South Sudan and had gone to a local market during the day on Dec. 16 to move food from a storage space to the small stall he ran. Friends in South Sudan told aid workers that he didn’t return to the camp that night, and local authorities found his body the next day. BuzzFeed couldn’t independently confirm the details of his death, though two aid workers in South Sudan said his name and description appeared on a list of those killed in mid-December.
The reported death of Kuany, and five others, in South Sudan’s recent violence has revived questions over Israel’s lack of official refugee policy. Fearing that a law on refugees could be used by millions of Palestinians seeking the right of return, Israel has declined to adopt one, leaving tens of thousands of people with no status. This month, Israel saw its biggest protests ever over the issue, with 25,000 African people taking to the streets to demand Israel recognize them as refugees and reconsider new laws that would see many of them imprisoned or put in detainment facilities before they are deported.
Kuany was one of more than 52,000 people from Africa who have made their way to Israel, most from Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea. He left Sudan in 2006, fleeing a decades-long war that had killed most of his immediate family, and arrived in Israel less than two years later.
“He struggled like all of us did to arrive here in Israel,” said Mari Nabil, who knew Kuany through the community center for ethnic Neur from South Sudan, in the city of Arad, where they both worked. “We came across the deserts and then we found each other again in the Israeli desert.”
“What we did to get here was so hard, very hard, but then we arrived and found a country who thought of us as the enemy — not as refugees,” Nabil said. “We just want to be recognized as what we are.”
The Israeli leadership has refused, however, to call the group asylum seekers or refugees. Netanyahu refers to those who enter Israel illegally as “infiltrators.”
“Neither protests nor strikes will help. We completely stopped the infiltration into Israel and now we are determined to send away the illegal migrant workers who entered Israel,” Netanyahu posted on his Facebook page earlier this month.
That is a harsher tone than the one the Israeli government struck just half a decade ago. In 2008, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert helped create job programs for the refugees and earned praise from the U.N. by searching for countries ranging from African to Europe that would be willing to absorb some of the refugee groups from Israel. At that time, the number of refugees stood below 10,000, a figure that would reach just more than 52,000 by the end of 2013.
“What might have been manageable in 2008 – had we set up a mechanism – became a much larger problem because nobody dealt with it in a responsible way,” said one Israeli official who served in the interior ministry of Olmert’s government and spoke on condition of anonymity because he currently holds a different position in the government and was not authorized to speak on record. He said that because Israel did not begin processing refugees in 2008, they were now overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of refugee status applications that are under review. “The problem is that this population of refugees grew, no one was processing them or coming with a policy, and now everyone throws their hands up in the air to say, ‘Oh—there are too many refugee applications to possibly deal with.’”
He said Israeli officials were “lucky” that they only had to contend with the people currently in Israel, and didn’t have to worry about thousands of new people arriving monthly. Israel managed to stem the flow of refugees and secure the southern border by constructing a fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border. In the first six months of 2013, the number of African nationals entering Israel stood at 34, compared with 9,570 the year before.
But the Netanyahu government still has to determine what to do with the more than 52,000 African nationals already living in Israel. Last year, the Interior Ministry announced a two-fold plan: Those who choose to remain in Israel, would fall under the newly approved “anti-Infiltration law,” which allows Israel to jail asylum seekers for one year, and then keep them detained indefinitely in a newly built detainment facility in the southern Negev desert. They would be allowed to leave the facility during the day, but would be barred from legally working in Israel. The other option was to sign a consent form for “voluntary deportation” during which Israel would arrange a flight back to Africa, (often through a third-party country to help mask the identity of those who left) and return those people whenever possible to their country of origin. The refugees were essentially left to decide between imprisonment or repatriation.
Since the start in mid-2012 of the voluntary deportations, more than 2,000 South Sudanese have been repatriated. Other groups – including Sudanese and Eritreans – have also been deported though exact numbers are not made public by Israeli officials.
Kuanay was among the first group of South Sudanese to leave, said Sigal Rozen, Director of the Israeli group, the Hotline for Migrant Workers., and other people who knew him.
“Everyone who left got $1500, which for many of them seemed preferable to the alternative of spending years in jail and probably being deported anyways,” said Nabil, Kuany’s co-worker. “It was that he was proud. He didn’t want to leave when they were forcing him to. He said, ‘I will leave now. If they do not want me, I will leave,’” she said, adding later, “His pride made him leave.”
Kuany’s friends remembered him as a quiet, somewhat old-fashioned man who was always eager to help — whether that meant lending a kettle or watching a neighbor’s child for a couple of hours.
News of his death in South Sudan only further fueled the anger of those who have been protesting.
“That they are dead makes this only more important, what we are doing now,” said Nabil, Kuany’s co-worker and friend. “Israel tells us that we must either leave here or go to prison, what kind of country asks a person to choose between prison and death?” said Nabil, who on Tuesday brought her two young children to a protest in Tel Aviv. “I thought of taking the voluntary deportation and leaving Israel like others did, but now I am happy I didn’t. I think this country needs to realize we are refugees and we need help, not hate.”
Through Skype chats and Facebook groups, those who remained in Israel heard of Kuany’s death – as well as five others who have been reportedly killed in the last month after being repatriated by Israel. Those include James Gatdor Jakoak, whose wife and children still live in Israel and Chang Kuoth Gatjiek, a 19-year-old who had travelled to Israel on his own as a teenager. Jakoak’s wife could not be reached for comment, but neighbors told BuzzFeed she was “in shock” over the death of her husband.
An aid worker who asked to remain anonymous and Mollie Gerver, a PhD student from London who is currently in South Sudan conducting research into the lives of those who returned from Israel, confirmed the reports.
“It was shocking, then heartbreaking, when we confirmed they had been killed,” the aid worker said.
Gerver said that among the others killed were also two children who had been born in Israel and then deported to South Sudan along with their families. Their names could not be released as their families had not yet been found.
The United Nation’s refugee agency has criticized Israel for its handling of the issue, saying Israel’s “current policy and practices create fear and chaos amongst asylum-seekers.” These practices, the agency added, are “not in line” with the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Israel is a co-signer. The convention demands that countries not impose penalties or restrict the movement of refugees, nor put them in harm’s way.
“Of course, many people ask how Israel, a Jewish state founded after the Holocaust could treat other refugees in this way. Israel’s signed the UN convention at a time when it condemned the rest of the world for its treatment of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust,” said Sigal Rozen, Director of the Israeli group, the Hotline for Migrant Workers. “These are sensitive issues, but many people see the irony.”