Four times a refugee

As Israel prepares to deport African migrants, deportees divulge dangers

Since 2013, 4,000 asylum seekers have willingly returned to Africa. They share stories of peril and broken promises

African migrants take part in a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017,against the 'Deposit Law,' which requires them to deposit 20% of their salary in a fund which they can only take back after they leave the country. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
African migrants take part in a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017,against the 'Deposit Law,' which requires them to deposit 20% of their salary in a fund which they can only take back after they leave the country. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israel is set to deport thousands of African asylum seekers in the coming months and close the Holot Detention Center in the south of the coutnry, after the Knesset approved the Infiltrator’s Bill on Monday.

After years of deporting African asylum seekers who signed documents saying they were voluntarily leaving, Israel will now be able to forcibly deport migrants to countries other than the ones they came from, part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s frenzied networking with African leaders, especially Rwanda.

As the Interior Ministry lays the groundwork for mass deportations, deported migrants already in Uganda shared stories of anger, hopelessness, and danger that have plagued them since leaving Israel. One African migrant was surreptitiously sent to Khartoum, Sudan, and imprisoned, despite being told he was going to Uganda. Another was sent to Rwanda, kept in a locked villa for a week, and then transferred to the border with Uganda — where he was then told to smuggle himself across and request refugee status in Uganda.

Almost all have struggled to get the paperwork in Uganda that recognizes them as refugees, something they claim Israel promised they would be assisted with when they reluctantly agreed to leave Israel.

Since 2013, Israel has deported approximately 4,000 migrants with their ostensible agreement to third countries widely reported to be Uganda and Rwanda, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Until now, Rwanda and Uganda have only agreed to accept deportees who sign an agreement that they are leaving Israel of their own free will.

But after Netanyahu’s November meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Nairobi, the African country has agreed to accept forced deportations. According to media reports, Rwanda agreed to accept up to 10,000 deportees at the cost of $5,000 per refugee.

A spokeswoman from the Population Immigration and Borders Authority said on Tuesday that the Interior Ministry had not yet begun the process for deportations but that it expected to begin in the coming weeks. The spokeswoman also said that migrants who are willingly deported are allowed to choose among countries that have agreed to receive Israel’s migrants, a claim that runs contrary to the experiences from deported migrants interviewed by The Times of Israel.

The Rwandan Foreign Ministry declined to respond to multiple requests for comment.

PM Netanyahu, left, with Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Nairobi, Kenya, November 28, 2017 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

There are approximately 38,000 Africans in Israel who consider themselves asylum seekers, according to the Interior Ministry. They arrived between 2006 and 2012, and the vast majority are Sudanese or Eritrean. Many live in South Tel Aviv, and residents have blamed asylum seekers for rising crime rates, lobbying the government for deportation.

On Monday, the Knesset approved the cabinet’s plan to close the Holot Detention Center, an open detention facility for illegal migrants in the Negev Desert, on March 16. As Holot closes, the country will begin mass deportations.

“This removal is taking place thanks to an international agreement I reached that enables us to remove the 40,000 infiltrators remaining, remove them without their consent,” Netanyahu told ministers before the vote.

“This will enable us to close down Holot and allocate some of the large funds going there to inspectors and removing more people,” said Netanyahu.

Expulsion to a third country is largely unprecedented in the Western world. Italy and Australia signed similar agreements with third-party countries — Italy with Libya, and Australia with Malaysia — but both proposals were shot down by local courts. In both cases, courts ruled the bills inconsistent with international law and the 1951 UN convention on refugees — to which Israel is also a party.

Strengthening ties with Africa

Last month, Netanyahu arrived in Kenya for a whirlwind visit to celebrate the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta and for bilateral meetings with African leaders. Netanyahu was seated next to Kenyatta — who won a contested election critics say was rigged — and Rwanda’s Kagame at a luncheon in Nairobi’s Presidential Palace.

When he returned from a marathon session of meetings with leaders from 10 African countries, Netanyahu made a number of announcements about strengthening ties with Rwanda, including a new embassy and possible direct flights from Kigali to Tel Aviv. Another outcome of the meetings: a decision to pay Rwanda a sum widely reported as $5,000 per head to accept African migrants who came to Israel illegally.

Previously, the government’s strategy has been to keep illegal migrants in the Holot Detention Center in Israel’s south for a period of up to a year, in an effort to convince migrants to “willingly leave” to a third country.

Asylum seekers protesting at the Holot detention center in the southern Negev Desert of Israel, February 17, 2014. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

In August, the High Court ruled that the government can continue its practice of “willing deportation” of African migrants to third countries, but can only detain migrants in Holot for up to two months. In order to encourage asylum seekers to agree to voluntary deportation, in May, the government passed legislation that requires employers of African migrants to put 20 percent of an employee’s salary in a fund that can only be accessed if he or she leaves Israel.

The United Nation’s High Commission on Refugees expressed “serious concern” with Israel’s plan to deport migrants to Rwanda.

“Due to the secrecy surrounding this policy and the lack of transparency concerning its implementation, it has been very difficult for UNHCR to follow up and systematically monitor the situation of people relocated to these African countries,” UNHCR said in a statement. “UNHCR, however, is concerned that these persons have not found adequate safety or a durable solution to their plight and that many have subsequently attempted dangerous onward movements within Africa or to Europe.”

‘The Israeli government lied to us’

Muhtar Awdalla, now a third-year law student in Kampala originally from Darfur, Sudan, spent 4.5 years in Israel working in Dead Sea hotels. He left Darfur in 2003 and spent time in Egypt before illegally crossing into Israel. He was summoned to Holot Detention Center in June 2014. He faced a decision: go to Holot, or leave the country. Awdalla said when he got the summons, he decided not to fight anymore to stay in Israel.

“When I first came to Israel I was detained in Saharonim [Prison] for eight months, so I didn’t want to waste any more of my time,” said Awdalla, now 29. “I wanted to go to school, I wanted to study law.”

Awdalla said he agreed to be deported to Uganda, where he hoped to enroll in law school. He took the $3,500 payout from the government for “willing deportees” and flew from Tel Aviv to Jordan, where handlers put him on another plane. When he woke up as the plane was landing, he saw a sign that said “Welcome to Khartoum, Sudan.”

A similar fate befell another deportee also from Darfur, who was originally told he was being deported to Ethiopia but was then forced to continue on to Sudan. The man refused to board the flight to Sudan and spent eight nights in the Addis Ababa airport before being sent back to Israel.

“The Israeli government lied to us,” said Awdalla.

He was detained immediately upon disembarking in Khartoum after border control suspected Awdalla’s travel documents, which he received from the Interior Ministry, might be fake. Airport security seized Awdalla’s bag, with the $3,500, his computer, and phone, discovering documents and other things in Hebrew, and sent him to detention, where guards beat him severely. After he spent three months in prison, a brother in Algeria finally located him and made the necessary connections to get him out of prison and to the border with Chad. Awdalla slipped across the border and reunited with his family, which had been living in a refugee camp in eastern Chad since they fled in 2003.

Muhtar Awdalla is a third-year law student in Kampala, Uganda, pictured here in his dormitory on September 10, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Awdalla made his own way to Uganda and now studies in Kampala, where he is the president of the Law Student Union at Cavendish University and spends his school vacations volunteering in refugee camps as a pro-bono law advocate with the million South Sudanese refugees now in Uganda.

He said after school he plans to become a human rights lawyer to fight for his rights both in Israel and Uganda. “We are going to sue the government of Israel because of what they’ve done to us and to all the people in Holot,” said Awdalla. “I want to contribute my knowledge and defend these people who are obeying the law. If you look at [international] law, Israel is doing opposite. These are refugees who escaped. They should protect them, they shouldn’t send them back to where they came from and they shouldn’t lie to me that I’m going to Uganda when they take me to Sudan.”

Bernie, 32, a Sudanese asylum seeker who declined to give his last name, lived in Tel Aviv for 6.5 years and was working at a falafel place in 2014 when he was summoned to Holot. “I counted the years I’d been living there and nothing was happening,” said Bernie. “I said I’d rather go back to Africa, I don’t want to spend a year in Holot.”

Bernie said representatives at the Interior Ministry told him that although most Sudanese are deported to Uganda, he had to go to Rwanda first. “They said, ‘We have a problem with the Ugandan government. So you need to go with the Eritreans… They told me if you don’t want to go you’ll have to wait more in Holot. If you don’t want to wait you need to go now.”

Bernie joined a group of 15 Eritrean asylum seekers and flew to Rwanda. They spent two days in a hotel and then handlers put them in a big house in an undisclosed location for over a week.

“After eight days in the villa they took us to the border [with Uganda]. It was about midnight,” Bernie said. “We slept three hours and then they said we had to cross the border in the middle of the night because we didn’t have any papers to cross the border.”

Bernie, 32, was in Israel for 6.5 years. Pictured here on September 11, 2017, in Kampala, he is now learning English and looking for a job. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Bernie had considered staying in Rwanda, but his handlers told him it was impossible. They told him he couldn’t get refugee status, or go to school, or get any rights. “They didn’t give me the choice to stay in Rwanda,” he said. When Bernie arrived in Uganda, he went on his own to file for refugee status. He gave a fake name and a fake story to the Office of the Prime Minister, the branch that handles refugee issues in Uganda.

“My friends said that if I said I came from Israel, they’ll refuse to give me a refugee ID,” said Bernie. “So I changed my name and said I came from South Sudan through the camps to here.”

Another asylum seeker deported from Israel to Uganda, who declined to give his name, said he had struggled for almost two years to get the paperwork needed to be recognized as a refugee as the Ugandan government did not know what to do with refugees from Israel. He added that Israel did not provide them with sufficient documentation to support their refugee claims.

There have been a number of documented instances where Israel’s deported refugees end up in Libya or Europe after making a hazardous sea crossing.

The front page of one of the largest Ugandan daily newspapers on September 10, 2017, decrying Israeli policy of secretly sending African migrants to Uganda. (courtesy)

Uganda has quietly taken in over a million South Sudanese refugees in the past few years due to the violence in South Sudan. The country has a liberal policy toward refugees, in contrast to many other countries in Africa such as Rwanda or Kenya. In Uganda, refugees can work freely and have full freedom of movement, though they can elect to stay in a refugee “settlement,” where they receive a 100-square-meter plot of land and can grow their own food.

In some weeks, Uganda absorbs more refugees in a seven-day period than the number of African refugees Israel has in the entire country, according to UN statistics.

Still, Ugandans were incensed that Israel would secretly deport asylum seekers to their country. The Sunday Vision, Uganda’s biggest paper, splashed the news across its Sunday print edition in big black letters. The Daily Monitor, quoting from Times of Israel articles, said the government would have to answer for the “behind-the-scenes deal.”

A silver lining

Activists who work with refugees in Israel are celebrating the closure of the Holot  detention center but very concerned about the future and mass deportations. “We always thought [Holot] didn’t need to open in the first place, so we’re happy it won’t continue to waste public money,” said Dror Sadot, the spokeswoman for Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “But the fact that they’re tying the closure to deporting people is a sin on top of a sin.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said the facility cost NIS 240 million ($68 million) per year to operate and that it had become a “hotel for infiltrators at the public’s expense.” There are currently about 1,500 people in detention at Holot, according to Sadot.

To combat the deportations, the Hotline is trying to encourage asylum seekers to file for refugee status. Israel cannot deport anyone who has an open file for refugee status, although the state has only granted refugee status to two Sudanese and eight Eritreans in the past decade despite thousands of applications.

The system for filling for refugee status has also been overwhelmed by more than 20,000 Georgian and Ukrainian migrants, who are coming to Israel mainly for economic reasons but claiming they are political refugees. Dozens of African migrants are braving winter temperatures to wait overnight in line for the possibility of filing a claim at the Population Immigration and Borders Authority office at 53 Salome Road in Tel Aviv.

Bernie, a hip hop artist who sings in English and Fur, the local language of Darfur, said he tells his friends to do their best to stay in Israel, despite the discrimination and the challenges they face there. Although there are more opportunities for education in Kampala, life is difficult in Uganda, and he has struggled to find work. Some of his friends in Uganda have tried the illegal immigration route to Europe. Others have gotten kidnapped in Libya along the way.

“I just want the [Israeli] government to let our people live in peace until the war finishes, then they’ll come back home [to South Sudan] automatically,” Bernie said.

Awdalla said his experiences inspired him to study international law to change the way Israel deals with its refugees, but he also wishes the government of Israel would be more patient because few Sudanese refugees want to stay in Israel. “Most of Sudanese who are struggling in their lives, one day we will come back and build our country,” he said. “That’s what we want to do.”

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