Niger man deported by Israel stranded in Ethiopia airport for months

Eissa Muhamad has been living in the departures lounge in Addis Ababa since November, after his home country twice refused to repatriate him

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Departure hall of Terminal 2 at Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on June 10, 2016. (CC BY-SA Wikimedia Commons/Trinidade)
Departure hall of Terminal 2 at Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on June 10, 2016. (CC BY-SA Wikimedia Commons/Trinidade)

A migrant from Niger deported by Israel last year has been trapped in bureaucratic limbo at the airport in Ethiopia’s capital for the last three months after his home country has twice refused to take him back.

Twenty-four-year-old Eissa Muhamad has been living in the departure lounge at Addis Ababa’s international airport since November, when his travel papers expired while he was bounced back and forth between Israel and Niger.

Muhamad left his home in Niger’s northwestern Tilaberi region at age 16 in search of a better life, he told the BBC in an interview this week. He paid traffickers to ferry him across Libya and Egypt in 2011, before crossing the southern Israeli border on foot.

He settled in Tel Aviv, where he lived for the next seven years, surviving off small odd jobs at a hostel and a candy factory. In April 2018, Muhamad was arrested by immigration authorities over his illegal status.

After several months at a migrant detention facility, Israel issued him a temporary travel document and put him on an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Niger. But when he landed in the capital, Niamey, he was refused entry by Nigerien border authorities, who alleged the Israeli-issued travel document was faked.

Eissa Muhamad speaks in a video from the Addis Ababa international airport in Ethiopia. (courtesy, Hotline for Migrant Workers)

After a week in detention in his home country, Muhamad was deported back to Israel, where he was detained upon his arrival at Ben Gurion airport. He spent several more weeks in an airport detention facility before Israel attempted to deport him back to Niger a second time.

“[Israeli authorities] tied my hands and legs and forced me into a plane back to Niger which refused to accept me again,” he told the BBC.

After again refusing to accept Muhamad’s travel document, authorities in Niamey put him on a second Ethiopian Airlines flight to Israel. But by that point, his Israeli travel document had expired, leaving Muhamad in limbo at the Addis Ababa airport.

Muhamad spends most of his time wandering around the departures lounge, and sleeps in the corner of the airport’s Muslim prayer room. He survives off food handouts from travelers or Ethiopian Airlines staff.

“I have been staying here at the airport under very bad conditions because there’s nothing, nothing at all,” he told the BBC. “Sometimes the airline people give me food. It’s the same every day but I am grateful to them.”

In a statement, the Israeli Population, Immigration and Border Authority told the BBC that Muhamad was deported due to his illegal status, and claimed he was denied entry to Niger because he “refused to cooperate” with local authorities when he arrived.

Eissa Muhamad holds the travel document issued by Israel that has been rejected by Niger border authorities. (courtesy, Hotline for Migrant Workers)

“He is a citizen of Niger. It has nothing to do with us because he was expelled from here and when he arrived in Niger, he refused to cooperate with the authorities. How is Israel connected? He is not an Israeli,” the statement said. PIBA also denied the travel document it issued Muhamad was the source of the problem.

Muhamad insists that he has fully cooperated with authorities in all three countries involved.

Meanwhile, Ethiopian officials said they could only intervene to help Muhamad if he makes an asylum request, which he has so far refused to do. Muhamad says he wants to return either to Israel or his homeland, Niger.

“It’s all up to him. We care about his dignity so we will approach him to find out if he will change his mind so he can get refugee status here,” an Ethiopian immigration official told the BCC. “It’s the only thing we can do.”

African migrants began arriving in Israel in 2005 through its porous border with Egypt, after Egyptian forces violently quashed a refugee demonstration and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel. Tens of thousands of Africans — mainly from war-torn Sudan and dictatorial Eritrea — crossed the desert border, often after enduring dangerous journeys, before Israel completed a barrier in 2012 that stopped the influx.

Massive migrant influx

Since then, Israel has wrestled with how to cope with the 30,000-40,000 migrants who already settled in the country. Many took up menial jobs in hotels and restaurants, and thousands settled in southern Tel Aviv, where some Israeli residents began complaining of rising crime.

While the migrants say they are refugees fleeing conflict or persecution in their home countries, Israel views them as job-seekers who threaten the Jewish character of the state.

Israel has gone from detaining them in remote desert prisons to purportedly reaching a deal with a third country, believed to be Rwanda, to have them deported there.

African migrants protesting outside the Holot detention facility in February 2014. (Flash90)

In April, Israel forged an agreement with the United Nations to have many, but not all, of the migrants resettled in Western countries, with others allowed to stay in Israel. But the government quickly scrapped the deal after an outcry by hard-line politicians and residents of the hardscrabble areas where many of the migrants live.

The measures have kept the migrants living in limbo. The overwhelming majority who have applied for asylum have been rejected, and most African migrants in Israel lead a tenuous existence, often at the whim of the government.

Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli NGO working with the migrant and refugee population, told The Times of Israel that Muhamad was not the only one to be trapped in limbo after his deportation.

“It happens a lot to migrants who are deported back to countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel,” Hotline spokeswoman Shira Abbo explained. “The travel document they get is issued by Israel and [those countries] often reject the document.”

She estimated that over a dozen African migrants deported from Israel each year are refused repatriation due to the Israeli-issued travel document.

“We know of people who have are being detained or returned because of these papers,” she said. “It’s an ongoing story.”

In this Tuesday, April 3, 2018 photo, an African migrant sleeps in a street in southern Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Hotline wants Muhamad returned to Israel so authorities can investigate his claims of violence by Israeli border officials during his second arrest, and eventually help him return to Niger safely.

“He complained of severe violence during his arrest, and he deserves that his allegations be investigated,” she said.

Abbo said Muhamad and other migrants trapped in similar bureaucratic stalemates are at high risk for unjust detention, violence and other human rights abuses.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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