In Uganda, deported migrants accuse Israel of ‘trafficking in refugees’

As the High Court approves the ongoing ‘willing deportation’ of African would-be refugees, some of those who already left express their bewilderment and trauma

African migrants walk out of the Holot detention center in the Negev desert in southern Israel, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
African migrants walk out of the Holot detention center in the Negev desert in southern Israel, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

KAMPALA, Uganda — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Thursday that he was “bringing South Tel Aviv back to the Israelis.” Sixteen-year-old Christina doesn’t quite understand what he’s talking about. She lived in Israel for six years, some of them in Tel Aviv, and never wanted to take the country from anyone.

Four years after being forced to leave Israel, the Sudanese-born teenager calls out to her classmates on the bus in a busy street in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. “Yalla, nelech!” she yells in Hebrew to a group of friends who also spent their formative years in Israel. “Come on, let’s go!”

Last Monday, the High Court ruled that the government can continue its practice of “willing deportation” of African migrants to third countries, i.e., not the ones they came from. While the destination countries are not named in the court documents, refugees have been returned to Rwanda and Uganda since Israel began the process of willing deportation. Previously, African migrants had also been returned to South Sudan, before that country broke out in civil war in 2013.

“We are here on a mission to give back south Tel Aviv to the Israeli residents,” the prime minister on Thursday told a group of residents and activists in the Neve Shaanan neighborhood, which has the highest concentration of African migrants. “I’ve heard the residents, and what I hear is pain and crisis. People are afraid to leave their homes,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with residents of south Tel Aviv, during a tour in the neighborhood, August 31, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Culture Minister Miri Regev said south Tel Aviv’s Israeli residents are “refugees in their own country.”

However, the Supreme Court also ruled that since the deportations may only be carried out with the agreement of the migrants, refusal to leave Israel cannot be considered uncooperative behavior. And Israel may not imprison migrants who refuse to leave for more than 60 days. Previously, the Interior Ministry could imprison illegal migrants indefinitely in the Holot Detention Center in the Negev.

Christina, left, organized Come True students to volunteer with orphans in Kampala on September 1, 2017 along with Atoch Amos (not pictured). Both were South Sudanese migrants deported from Israel. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Four times a refugee

Five thousand kilometers south, Christina, whose last name is being withheld to protect her privacy, and her friends weren’t following the news in Israel, but they weren’t surprised.

Christina, now in high school in Kampala, is a refugee for the fourth time. She was born in Khartoum, Sudan, and her parents fled violence to Egypt when she was a toddler. Then, when she was five, they made the hazardous journey to Israel and illegally crossed the border.

Her family eventually moved to the Negev town of Arad and Christina enrolled in school, discovered a passion for singing, and had music teachers praising her soulful voice.

“I got used to Israel; I thought I’d be there for the rest of my life,” she said. “But I remember, one day, it was all over the news, I went to school and my friends said, the government doesn’t want you anymore, you have to go home.”

The June 2012 repatriation of South Sudanese migrants, called “Operation Returning Home,” saw about 700 illegal South Sudanese migrants rounded up in the course of a few days to be sent to South Sudan, following an agreement between Israel and the newly independent nation.

When Christina got home from school that day, her father confirmed that the family would be among those leaving. The government offered approximately 1,000 euros to those who left (today, the amount is $3,500). Those who did not agree to leave were sent to the Holot Detention Center.

“It was the worst moment I have ever experienced,” said Christina. In the course of a week, she went from an apartment in Arad to a developing country she never knew. “There was no electricity, no TV, nothing,” she said. “We had to stay in the dark. We had to walk long distances to bring water. It wasn’t like Israel where we had taps.”

Of the 700 refugees returned to South Sudan, about 500 were children who had grown up in Israel.

Christina, volunteering with friends in Kampala on September 1, 2017, discovered a love for singing in Israel. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“You grow up in a place you think is your home, and then they send you to a place that’s really bad,” said Christina. “Israel is a place I’ve developed my talents, I know my rights, everything happened to me there,” she said.

Christina’s situation is different from the “third country returnees” in the news this past week because she was sent back to her original country through a government deal between South Sudan and Israel in 2012. However, like most children and teenagers sent back with her, she has no memory of that home. Today, she is in school in Uganda, where Israel plans to  “willingly repatriate” other migrants. Officially Israel has not identified the countries that they send repatriated migrants, though they have been widely reported in the Israeli media as Rwanda and Uganda.

In Uganda, Christina is facing the same challenges that all of the future repatriated refugees will face, though her path to get there was even more treacherous.

A descent into chaos

Less than a year after Christina’s family moved back to South Sudan, civil war broke out in 2013. “It was the first time I saw dead bodies,” she said. “I remember, at 4 a.m., it was a Monday, we heard gunshots. My dad told us to stay inside and he went to check what happened. He came back and he said the war had started and we couldn’t stay. So we ran to the forest and stayed there for two weeks. We saw dead bodies, we saw people being killed, but we had to keep moving. After two weeks, my dad thought we should try to go home. In the forest we had to drink dirty water from swamps and the only thing we had to eat was some kind of leaves.”

On their way home, their group ran into a number of rebel fighters. “The rebels saw a girl with us and they were running after her,” said Christina, in an even tone, looking at a blank wall in front of her. “Then they caught her. They raped her and then they shot her. She was my friend. I was in shock. I will never forget that in my life. I tried to do my best to shout but my dad said, ‘Don’t do anything. If you shout they will kill us too.’ They threw her dead body to the side and dogs came and ate it.”

I tried to do my best to shout but my dad said, ‘Don’t do anything, if you shout they will kill us too’

Christina said when they reached their home, most of their neighbors had been killed. Their bodies were everywhere. Christina called her Scouts counselor in Israel and begged for help. “I told her everything,” she said.

South Sudan national army soldiers patrolling the town of Bentiu, April 2014. (Simon Maina/AFP)

Christina’s counselor got in touch with Dr. Rami Gudovitch, a well-known activist in south Tel Aviv who has assisted refugees. Along with attorney Lea Forshtat, Gudovitch had co-founded the Come True organization, which has enrolled 170 deported South Sudanese kids and teenagers in school in Uganda.

The organization started in 2012, at first because there was no formal school infrastructure in South Sudan and Forshtat and Gudovitch wanted to ensure the deported students could continue their schooling. But when civil war broke out in 2013, the organization became more than an opportunity for education. It became a rescue operation.

Coordinating via WhatsApp and a strong network of contacts in Israel, South Sudan, and Uganda, Gudovitch helped arrange for Christina’s parents to bring their three children to Uganda. He has done the same for dozens of other children in South Sudan, trying desperately to find the children he knew from after-school activities and youth groups in Israel.

Come True students saved their pocket money of approximately NIS 30 per month to buy soap, snacks, and other necessities for a Kampala orphanage on September 1, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Since 2013, Christina and her siblings have been in Uganda. She’s seen her parents only once. Her older sister studies tailoring, and her brother is in elementary school.

Broken promises

Jacob Berry, 27, is the Come True director in Uganda. He was an activist and spokesperson for the South Sudanese community in Israel and the director of the Bnei Darfur organization, which provided assistance to South Sudanese migrants.

Berry was deported in 2015 and did not go to South Sudan, since it was already embroiled in civil war. Berry is also a multiple refugee. He left Darfur, Sudan, at age 15. He went through Egypt and crossed into Israel illegally when he was 18, living at first in Levinsky Park during a rainy January and then in a Scouts clubhouse in Tel Baruch.

Eventually, he went to learn Hebrew with the youth group Noar Ha’Oved V’HaLomed and began teaching English to fellow Darfurian refugees. He enrolled in Tel Aviv University to study international relations, part of his plan to eventually become a politician in Darfur when it becomes safe for him to return.

Throughout the years, he kept trying to get refugee status through the UN and then the Interior Ministry. But eight years after arriving in Israel, the Interior Ministry gave him an ultimatum: he could either go to Holot indefinitely or leave the country.

African migrants protest outside the Holot detention center in the Negev Desert in southern Israel, February 17, 2014. (Flash90)

For Berry, there was no choice. “My family is in a refugee camp in my own country, and I knew I couldn’t go to a camp,” said Berry. “I didn’t come here to go to prison. I came here to study. To be in prison would be the end of my life. There are two things I absolutely can’t do: go to Sudan and go to Holot.”

Berry said he thought he would have six months to appeal the decision, but instead, he was given five days to pack up his life. “I asked, ‘Where am I going?’ and they said, ‘You’re Traveling to Uganda.’ I said, ‘I don’t know anyone there, how can I survive?’ And they told me, ‘That’s what we decided.’”

We have a saying, an egg can’t fight with a stone

“We have a saying, an egg can’t fight with a stone,” said Berry. Berry said that the things he was promised by the Israeli government – a laissez passer document (called a teudat ma’avar in Hebrew, or an internationally recognized border crossing document that is not a passport) and the ability to attain refugee status – disappeared upon his arrival in Uganda. His laissez passer document was taken at the airport, he said, and the process to be recognized as a refugee in Uganda was complicated and arduous.

How can you be a South Sudanese refugee from Israel?

Uganda has a much more progressive stance toward refugees than other countries. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the country hosts 1.3 million refugees, the fifth-highest number in the world (only Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Jordan have more) and the most in Africa.

One million of the country’s refugees are from South Sudan, and more than 300,000 have arrived since January 2017. In comparison, there are approximately 9,000 Sudanese refugees in Israel, the same number that flee to Uganda every week and a half.

There are approximately 9,000 Sudanese refugees in Israel, the same number that flee to Uganda every week and a half

Unlike in Ethiopia and Kenya, which also have large refugee populations, refugees in Uganda are given freedom of movement. Refugee camps are called “settlements” and refugees are given a 30 meter by 30 meter plot of land to grow vegetables and become self-sufficient. They can obtain work permits and live anywhere they desire, though there are still significant obstacles and discrimination.

Newly arrived refugees from South Sudan wait in line to be registered on April 11, 2017, at Ngomoromo, Uganda border post to be transferred into a resettlement center. (AFP Photo/Isaac Kasamani)

While Uganda is cited by the UN and other aid organizations as a positive model, Berry said Ugandan officials were completely unfamiliar with the plight of South Sudanese refugees from Israel.

Paying it forward

Today, Berry oversees approximately 170 South Sudanese students repatriated from Israel, who study at three schools in Kampala. He goes with them to doctor’s appointments, makes sure their school fees are paid, helps find places for them to stay during school breaks, and tries to navigate the complicated labyrinth of refugee status bureaucracy.

On Friday, the day after Netanyahu toured Neve Shaanan, a dozen Come True students were at a small, locally-run orphanage in Kampala called African Delighters, peppering their English with Hebrew phrases. The students had pooled their pocket money (each student at boarding school gets about NIS 30 (about $8) per month in personal spending money) to buy soap, used clothes, and other donations for a local orphanage. Christina helped to organize this volunteer day along with Atoch, 19, a Sudanese-born student who spent four years in Israel.

Jason Berry, center with black briefcase, the Ugandan director of Come True, with donated goods and used clothes during a Come True volunteer day in Kampala on September 1, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“We’re trying to show we have a little, but we want to share it,” said Atoch. For Atoch and the other students, it was important for them to pay forward the support they’re getting from Israeli donors to pay for their tuition. Tuition, including medical expenses and accommodations for students during breaks — since they cannot return to South Sudan — costs approximately $1,000 per year per student.

“We feel like we should also help kids, and we want to help more kids,” said Atoch, tearing up. “It’s just about being kind. We’re all human beings.”

South Tel Aviv is a ‘recipe for disaster’

Atoch’s sentiment is the message Berry wishes the Israeli government would understand. While in Israel, working on a personal basis not connected to Come True, he testified at the Knesset on five occasions, begging politicians to find a more permanent solution to the refugee and illegal migrant issue.

Having so many refugees concentrated in South Tel Aviv was a “recipe for disaster,” Berry said. He suggested finding ways to spread the migrant population evenly across the country, so no one place would feel overwhelmed.

Even before the African migrants began arriving in south Tel Aviv in 2006, the most impoverished part of the city was already suffering from institutional neglect. Neve Shaanan was zoned for approximately 6,000 residents, but today more than 40,000 live in the neighborhood, making it the most crowded place in the city.

According to the African Refugee Development Center, there are approximately 46,437 Africans in Israel who consider themselves asylum seekers. They arrived between 2006 and 2012, when Israel finished construction on a southern border wall with Egypt. About 90 percent are Eritrean or Sudanese.

African asylum seekers are seen in their makeshift dwelling as children play sports nearby, at the Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv on April 11, 2013. (Roni Schutzer/ FLASH 90)

South Tel Aviv residents have protested for years, incensed over the migrants’ presence and the problems that ensue from having thousands of illegal migrants with no work permits living in a concentrated area. South Tel Aviv activist Sheffi Paz was delighted on Friday, announcing on Facebook “today, the signal for deportation has begun.”

“Against all the wrath from the haters and defamers, we will win,” she wrote. “We will take back our neighborhoods and we will rebuild them.”

In May, the government passed legislation that requires employers of African migrants put 20% of an employee’s salary in a fund that can only be accessed if he or she leaves Israel. The move will put additional pressure on migrants to accept the terms of “voluntary deportation.”

Berry said he feels like his life is on hold. He can’t imagine staying in Uganda, and he can’t imagine picking up and starting all over — again — in a new place.

Orphans at a Kampala orphanage participate in a day of activities organized by Come True students on September 1, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“I don’t want to stay in anyone’s country, it doesn’t matter how beautiful or hard,” said Berry. “Darfur is my country, but now I have no country.”

He said the Israeli government is “engaging in a type of human trafficking with refugees.”

“What Israel is doing is not legal and not constitutional,” Berry said. 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.

“I didn’t go to Israel to stay in Israel or to change the demographic character of the country,” Berry said. “I went to Israel because, as they say, ‘your enemy’s enemy is your friend.’ I went to Israel because I thought Israel would protect us. I was just there because I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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