Do refugees have a choice in Israel’s continued policy of transferring African arrivals to third countries?
Kampala, Uganda – The sky was still an inky black when the flight from Cairo touched down at Entebbe Airport near Kampala, the capital of Uganda, one morning in mid-January, the fluorescent glow spilling from the small terminal providing the only source of light.
It had been 15 hours since Musgun Gebar left Tel Aviv, and the journey staggered him in its brevity. Four years earlier, when he had travelled the other way – from Eritrea in East Africa to Israel – he had done so on foot, a punishing journey across the Sahara and the Sinai that took more than a month.
Kidnappers stalked the route, food was scarce, and half of the people with whom he had travelled didn’t survive. But this time, he simply sat down in a small cushioned seat and waited, snapping selfies and eating salty meals from aluminum tins until, suddenly, he had arrived.
Gebar had no visa to enter Uganda. He wasn’t carrying an invitation letter or an application form. In fact, he didn’t even have a passport. Though he had crossed many borders in his life, he had never done it through the official channel of queues and customs officials and dated stamps.
He only carried $3,500 in clean, hundred dollar bills in his wallet, a temporary travel document called a “laissez passer”, and a creased letter from the Israeli government. “Passengers are asked to follow instructions and regulations to ensure a safe and pleasant departure from Israel,” it read, with a signature from the Voluntary Departures Unit.
From friends who had come before him, Gebar already knew what would happen next. The man emerged as he stepped inside the terminal, wordlessly ushering him and the nine other Eritreans on the flight away from the passport control line.
Without a glance from the border patrol officers, he led them around the queue, to the baggage claim where their luggage awaited, and then out of the airport’s sliding-glass doors. In the car park, a van waited to drive them to a hotel.
After that, they were on their own.
Human rights organisations have reported that over the past three years this scene has played out hundreds of times in Uganda and neighbouring Rwanda, where more than 3,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers from Israel have been “voluntarily” resettled as of 2015.
Often, those who were resettled dispute whether they truly had a choice.
Gebar, for instance, says that he was being held in an immigration detention camp in the Negev Desert called Holot, when, he claims, officials there informed him that he had three options. If he liked, he could stay indefinitely in the camp. A second option was to go back to Eritrea, the country he had fled five years before. Or, he could agree to take $3,500 and depart for a third country of the Israeli government’s choosing.
Gebar didn’t hesitate. He took the third option.
Andie Lambe, executive director of the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), an NGO that has conducted extensive research into the departure of East African refugees from Israel, also questions just how much choice these refugees have.
“What does it mean when an unknown third country is someone’s best option?” he asks. “To me that says they never really had a choice at all.”
Media reports suggest that the three countries have cut a secret, high-level deal in which the African states accept refugees in return for arms, military training and other aid from Israel.
The countries involved have given conflicting responses, however, on their involvement.
Sabine Haddad, Israeli population and immigration authority spokeswoman, told Al Jazeera that Israel does have an agreement with two African countries – which she did not name – for the relocation of unwanted asylum seekers. She did not offer a response regarding the weapons exchange part of the agreement.
Ugandan government spokesman Ofwono Opondo told Al Jazeera earlier this year that the reports of a deal were “a rumour circulated by Israeli intelligence”.
“I have disputed that we have received these individuals,” he said.
Like others around the world, refugees leaving Israel for Rwanda and Uganda find themselves in a precarious position. Their lives straddle two countries, and movement either forwards or backward is nearly impossible.
Tedros Abrahe, an Eritrean midwife who also left Israel under the “voluntary departures” programme earlier this year, says he is “just waiting to be a legal refugee somewhere”.
Like most of the estimated 5,000 Eritreans who flee their country each month, Abrahe first left home in 2011 to escape the country’s mandatory and indefinite national service programme. After a brief stay in Sudan, he paid smugglers $3,000 to take him to Israel, where he figured opportunities would be better and life easier.
But when he arrived, he found that his Eritrean midwifery qualifications were not recognised in Israel, and that the only work available to him as an asylum seeker was an under-the-table job cleaning the kitchen of a Tel Aviv shawarma restaurant.
Israel did not consider him a refugee. Rather, like nearly all of the approximately 42,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees in Israel, he was labelled an “infiltrator” – a label previously used to categorise Palestinians entering Israel. The only status Abrahe was allowed was a permit granting him temporary reprieve from being deported, which, he says, he had to renew in person every 60 days.
This system, says Anat Ovadia-Rosner, a spokeswoman for Israeli NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, “puts people in a perpetual limbo, without the right to healthcare, to welfare services, to anything that might help them build a permanent life here”.
She thinks that “the whole structure is meant to make people’s lives miserable, so eventually, perhaps, they won’t want to stay any more.
Between 2009 and 2016, Israel granted official refugee status to 0.07 percent of all its Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers – a total of four people.
When, in late 2015, Abrahe went to refresh his Israeli permit, he was informed that it would not be renewed. Instead, he says, he was told that he had 30 days to either report to an immigration detention centre or leave the country for Eritrea or a location of the government’s choosing.
Believing that he would not be safe in Eritrea, Abrahe chose the latter option.
By the time he boarded a flight for East Africa in January 2016, thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees had already followed the same path.
According to Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, the voluntary resettlement plan had “encourage[d] infiltrators to leave the borders of the state of Israel honourably and safely”.
But just how safe is it really?
According to research by Hotline and IRRI in Rwanda, most of the refugees who arrive in Rwanda are immediately smuggled over the border to Uganda.
Abrahe says that he spent just two days in the country – waiting in a house near Kigali under an armed guard – before being forcibly taken to Kampala.
Those arriving in Uganda are not afforded any further rights. Uganda’s Department of Refugees says there is no deal to accept refugees coming from Israel. Douglas Asiimwe, the department’s principal protection officer, told Al Jazeera that any refugees arriving from Israel were assessed on the individual merits of their cases.
They shouldn’t need Uganda’s protection, he explained, because they weren’t coming from a war zone, but from a “safe” country that had promised under international law to uphold the rights of refugees.
Haddad, the Israeli population and immigration spokeswoman, insists that Israel “ensures that the process of relocation is conducted according to the agreements and in line with international law”.
In her statement to Al Jazeera, she wrote: “Israel makes certain that the refugees are accorded all relevant rights in accordance with the agreements, including receiving the appropriate permits and papers.”
But NGOs and human rights lawyers who have reviewed the refugees’ cases in both Israel and Uganda say that Israel’s official line on the subject is not true.
In late 2015, a coalition of NGOs and human rights lawyers challenged the legality of Israel’s third-country deportations before the Israeli Supreme Court. But a decision is still pending and Israel’s “voluntary departures” continue.
Even without legal status, life in Kampala was initially a marked improvement over Israel for both Gebar and Abrahe.
Ugandans were more welcoming than Israelis, they said, and the two melted easily into the city’s large Eritrean population.
Abrahe had spent some of the money the Israeli government gave him on an iPhone, which he used to send smiling selfies to family and friends in Eritrea, Israel, and Europe.
But the $3,500 wouldn’t last forever, and there were few jobs to be had in Uganda, even for someone with medical training like Abrahe. By September, both men had run out of money and were living on handouts from friends and family.
“Time just passes itself,” Gebar said. “You just sit home all day waiting, doing nothing.”
In late October, however, Abrahe decided that he couldn’t wait any longer. He borrowed a passport from a Ugandan friend and flew to Turkey. From there, he made the dangerous journey by boat to Greece, where he is now living in a refugee camp.
“It’s better to take a risk than to live this way for my whole life,” he says. “This year, I want to be a legal person somewhere.”