The government of Rwanda denied that the country had ever signed a “secret deal” with Israel under which Israel could forcibly deport African asylum seekers to Kigali, following a protest outside the Rwandan Embassy in Herzilya on Monday.
“In reference to the rumors that have been recently spread in the media, the Government of Rwanda wishes to inform that it has never signed any secret deal with Israel regarding the relocation of African migrants,” the government tweeted after the protest, which drew more than 1,000 Eritrean migrants.
“Rwanda is ready to help in whatever limited way it could, by welcoming anyone arriving at its borders in need of a home, voluntarily and without any constraint,” the government spokesperson continued.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Rwandan President Paul Kagame have strengthened ties in the past few years, with Netanyahu becoming the first prime minister to visit Rwanda and two visits from Kagame in the past two years.
After the two met again in Kenya at President Uhuru Kenyatta’s inauguration, Netanyahu announced that Israel would begin forcibly deporting migrants to third countries, which have been widely reported to be Uganda and Rwanda.
In November, Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said the country could accept approximately 10,000 asylum seekers from Israel. Israel will reportedly pay $5,000 to the Rwandan government for each deported migrant, plus a $3,500 “leaving grant” directly to the person being deported.
Previously, Rwanda and Uganda accepted about 4,000 migrants and asylum seekers who signed a document saying they had “willingly left” Israel, but until now the countries have not accepted any asylum seekers who were deported against their will.
Uganda has also denied that there was an agreement with Israel regarding asylum seekers. “There is no written agreement or any form of agreement between the government of Uganda and Israeli government to accept refugees from Israel,” Henry Oryem Okello, Uganda’s state minister for foreign affairs, told Reuters. He said any suggestion the migrants would be deported to his country was “fake news … absolute rubbish.”
There are approximately 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry. About 72 percent are Eritrean and 20 percent are Sudanese, and the vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012. Many live in south Tel Aviv, and some residents and activists blame them for rising crime rates and have lobbied the government for deportation.
In reference to the rumors that have been recently spread in the media, the Government of Rwanda wishes to inform that it has never signed any secret deal with Israel regarding the relocation of African migrants. (4/5)
— Government of Rwanda (@RwandaGov) January 22, 2018
Last month, the Knesset approved an amendment to the Infiltrator’s Law mandating the closure of the Holot detention facility and the forced deportations of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and asylum seekers starting in March.
The Rwandan government spokesperson said the government would continue their “open door” policy towards asylum seekers. “In these times of global migration crisis, Rwanda wishes to reiterate its firm determination to contribute, as much as possible, to the issue of men, women and children who find themselves on the treacherous road of exile.”
However, the reality of Rwanda’s response to asylum seekers has been a different story.
Asylum seekers and migrants deported to Rwanda have told The Times of Israel they are placed in transports and dropped off at an international border in the middle of the night, without documents, and told to cross illegally.
Deported asylum seekers have confirmed that they do not receive any documentation or work permits in Uganda, despite promises from the Israeli government prior to their deportation. In one case, a Sudanese asylum seeker agreed to go to Uganda and found himself landing in Khartoum, Sudan, where he was immediately imprisoned.
Netanyahu on Sunday said the tens of thousands of Africans who are living in Israel illegally are not legitimate refugees or asylum seekers, but instead are economic migrants.
“They aren’t refugees,” Netanyahu told his ministers at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. “Or at least most of them aren’t.”
“Most of them are looking for jobs,” he asserted.
The European Union has recognized asylum claims for 90 percent of Eritreans who apply for refugee status and 56 percent of Sudanese, according to the European Stability Institute. Israel has recognized refugee status for one Sudanese and ten Eritreans, out of tens of thousands of applications, a rate of less than 1%.
Also this week, El Al pilots made the symbolic gesture of stating they would refuse to fly African asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda, although El Al does not currently fly to those destinations.
Holocaust survivors and activists, including Rabbi Susan Silverman, said they would hide asylum seekers set to be deported in their homes.