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Israel Is Secretly Shipping Thousands Of Refugees To Africa

An African refugee covers his mouth with tape during a protest in front of the U.S. embassy, demanding asylum and work rights from the Israeli government in Tel Aviv, Israel, Jan. 22, 2014. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ODED BALILTY
An African refugee covers his mouth with tape during a protest in front of the U.S. embassy, demanding asylum and work rights from the Israeli government in Tel Aviv, Israel, Jan. 22, 2014. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ODED BALILTY

KAMPALA, UGANDA — “How did we end up here?” asked Adam, gazing with bewilderment around a cafe in the land that’s still foreign to him after over two years. “I never ever thought I’d be here in my wildest dreams. We are scared. I really don’t want to be a refugee anymore. I want to go home, in spite of everything.” Adam, 29, who requested his real name not be used, escaped the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region and is now one of the many “refugees in orbit,” as Israeli NGOs have dubbed them, created by the flaws in Israel’s “voluntary” return system. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to visit Uganda on July 4 for the 40th anniversary of the Entebbe raid — the first time an Israeli premier has visited Africa since 1994 — Adam and other African asylum-seekers remain stranded in limbo here.

There are around 45,000 African asylum-seekers in Israel today, and about 92 percent of them are from Eritrea and Sudan, according to the Israeli NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants (HRM). But denied asylum or work permits in Israel, many are now being deported from the country. Over 3,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers have left Israel over the past two years alone — not for their home countries, but under a deal shrouded in secrecy, for Uganda and Rwanda instead.

One activist told ThinkProgress that flights from Israel to Africa were continuing “at least once a week.”

“There’s still people coming out from Israel,” added Adam, having witnessed more asylum-seekers who have similar stories to himself. “They’re always coming.”

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For over a year, Israel has been sending African refugees to Uganda and Rwanda, offering them cash in return for leaving. The Israeli government continues to insist that the asylum-seekers are not refugees, but labor migrants seeking work, and that they are leaving voluntarily. Meanwhile, the Ugandan and Rwandan governments deny that any refugee deal exist between them and Israel — let alone reports that the deal is, in essence, one swapping refugees for benefits. Some reports say that Uganda and Rwanda receive arms and military training in return for accepting the refugees, while others say that the countries receive agricultural aid or even cash.

Rwanda’s government spokesperson did not respond to queries about the deal from ThinkProgress. “We do not comment on the issue,” Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told ThinkProgress.

The Refugee Crisis Just Hit A New, Grim MilestoneWorld by CREDIT: Italian navy via AP Photo, file More than 10,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean…thinkprogress.orgAlthough Netanyahu is officially visiting Uganda to commemorate the 1976 Entebbe Raid, in which his brother was killed, his discussions with Ugandan leaders may include the issue of asylum-seekers as well. Ugandan Senior Presidential Press Secretary Don Wanyama said Netanyahu will join President Yoweri Museveni and “several other regional leaders for a brief summit on security and terrorism.” “Rwanda is one of the regional neighbours expected at the Entebbe summit,” Wanyama told ThinkProgress over email.

Reut Michaeli, HRM’s executive director, said that Netanyahu would likely take advantage of his visit to Israel to “further develop secret agreements between those governments — agreements in which Israel is selling refugees, sending them from Israel to Africa to flee again and seek refuge across the Mediterranean.” “It won’t be surprising if the price that Israel is paying, in return for her involvement in human trade is more weapons sent to Africa,” she said, which “might easily end up in the hands of the wrong regimes.” “Instead of sharing the responsibility to solve the refugee crises, the Israeli government is contributing to more chaos and putting more people at risk.”

Uganda, which currently hosts over 500,000 refugees, has been praised by many for its role in the refugee crisis and for its welcoming policies towards refugees, including the UNHCR.

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“Uganda has a very progressive and generous approach towards refugee management and protection,” said Charlie Yaxley, the UNHCR spokesperson in Uganda. “In addition to providing refugees with land on which to construct shelters and grow crops, within villages in refugee-hosting districts, refugees are granted a broad range of rights and freedoms including the freedom to work, start their own business and to move around the country freely. This gives refugees in Uganda some of the best prospects for achieving independence and normality found anywhere in the world and is a model not only for countries in the region but across the world.”

In November 2015, an Israeli court rejected a petition arguing that those who depart for a third country are at risk of threat or persecution. Local NGOs appealed to the High Court of Justice, and in September, the court will conduct another hearing regarding the “Rwanda or Saharonim policy,” which forces African detainees in Israel into Saharonim prison if they refuse to go to Rwanda, from where they can still be deported.

But still, there are many dangers for the asylum-seekers transferred from Israel to Uganda. Rather than being offered legal status and a chance to make a living in Uganda, as promised, many asylum-seekers have become victims of trafficking or are left in the country without any legal papers, leaving them vulnerable.

Certainly, Adam still seems at risk in Kampala.

They said, ‘You’re going to Uganda.’ That’s all.

After fleeing the conflict in his village, during which his father and two brothers were killed and his mother and sister displaced in 2003, Adam fled to Egypt before going to Israel, where he lived for six years. Just over two years ago, when he went to renew his visa, the interior ministry there offered him an awful ultimatum: return to Darfur, where at least 300,000 people have died and more than two million have displaced since 2003, or go to Holot, an infamous detention facility in the Negev desert. Later, Adam says, he and three other African asylum seekers were offered a third option. “They said, ‘You’re going to Uganda.’ That’s all.”  Stuck with this ultimatum, Adam chose to go to Uganda. He was given $1,000 by the Israeli government as incentive to leave, as well as travel documents, but when he arrived in Uganda, where he didn’t know a soul, the Israeli travel documents were confiscated at the airport.  “It’s something very secret,” said Adam, who still does not have a passport today. Adam said he stayed in a hotel in Kampala for two days, per arrangements with Israel, but after leaving, he was arrested because he couldn’t show proper identification. “I got a paper, it’s refugee status that you can get for five years,” he said. “But at the end of the day it’s nothing, it’s just a bit of paper. In reality, I can’t get services.” Currently, Adam is studying at a Ugandan university with financial help from friends in Israel, a lifestyle he says is not really sustainable. Adam can’t get a work permit in the country — but even if he could, Uganda’s staggering youth unemployment rate of over 60 percent would still make it difficult for him to make a living.  “We are scared,” said Adam. “We never know who’s following us so we have to be careful. We’re staying at home.” Jamba, another 29-year-old Darfuri refugee who requested his real name not be used, has been similarly tossed around for the past 13 years. Jamba is from the same village as Adam, and his last memories of Darfur since fleeing in 2003 are of air strikes, army restrictions, and “people running,” he said. His mother and brother are still alive, but now live in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. Adam and Jamba lived together in Egypt and then in Israel. In May 2015, Jamba was sent to Holot after Israeli authorities refused to renew his visa, and a week later, he and a few others were deported to Uganda. Now in Uganda, the two are “just moving around and no-one respects us [or] gives us protection,” said Jamba.  Meanwhile, Israel’s “voluntary” return process doesn’t guarantee that Uganda won’t deport Darfuris home. Adam said the situation in Darfur is even worse than when he fled and that bringing about peace will require serious efforts from the international community. “You can’t move 30 kilometers out of the [IDP] camps because you’ll be raped, shot, or abducted,” he said.

I really don’t want to stay in Uganda at all. I want to go home in spite of everything.

But he’s sick of living in limbo. “I really don’t want to stay in Uganda at all. I want to go home in spite of everything,” said Adam, saying he hopes to set up a charity to help Darfuri children who are stuck in the IDP camps and can’t go to school. “There at least I can maybe do something, educate people.” “At the end of the day your home is your home, even if it’s under a tree,” he said.

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He said he is madder at Darfur than Uganda or Israel, but still believes Israel has a responsibility to him and the other asylum-seekers.

“They’re party to a lot of laws related to human rights,” he said. “Israel can’t just dump people here.”

Amy Fallon has been a journalist for nearly 15 years, during which time she has been based in Australia, the UK, and Africa and worked for AFP news agency, The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, and many other major international outlets. She has just moved from Uganda to Cambodia.