DAVOS, Switzerland — Rwandan President Paul Kagame told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his country would only accept asylum-seekers Israel is looking to deport if the move was made in accordance with international law.
The comment came as the two met on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, according to Netanyahu’s office.
Netanyahu agreed to Kagame’s assertion, a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office read, and the pair were said to discuss expanding cooperation between their two countries.
The PMO statement did not elaborate on the details of Israel’s plan to expel over 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers, nor did it relate to what Rwanda would be getting in return for its cooperation.
“Netanyahu agreed with President Kagame, who made clear that he would only accept a process that fully complies with international law,” the statement read.
On Tuesday, 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 a day earlier.
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
The statement following the Wednesday meeting seemed to confirm that Rwanda would not accept forcibly deported migrants, reflecting Kigali’s unease over the sensitive issue.
Kagame tweeted that his meetings with Netanyahu and other leaders were “very productive,” but did not issue any other statement on the talks.
In addition to a rich session on peacebuilding in Africa, had very productive exchanges w Swiss Pres. @alain_berset, PM Desalegn, PM @netanyahu, @David_Cameron & Cherie Blair of @CherieBlairFndn. Always a pleasure to connect w Rwanda's many friends and partners attending #WEF18!
— Paul Kagame (@PaulKagame) January 24, 2018
Netanyahu and 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.
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.
Last month, the Knesset approved an amendment to the so-called 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.
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.”
Netanyahu has dismissed criticism of his government’s controversial plan to send migrants back to Africa, arguing that the people slated for deportation are not actual refugees.
Netanyahu said Sunday that he had “heard the many claims,” but that the arrangements “guarantee personal safety for those who exit Israel. They receive approvals allowing them to live, work and integrate into the country. If they want, they can also return to their home countries. They are receiving significant financial aid from us.”
Netanyahu added then that he heard the criticism of the plan but that the arrangements “guarantee personal safety for those who exit Israel. They receive approvals allowing them to live, work and integrate into the country. If they want, they can also return to their home countries. They are receiving significant financial aid from us.”
Separately, Netanyahu congratulated Kagame on his assumption of the post of Chairman of the African Union, according to the PMO.
Also on Wednesday evening, Netanyahu met with Guatemalan Finance Minister Julio Hector Estrada and thanked him for his country’s decision to follow the US in announcing its intention to move its embassy to Jerusalem.
Guatemala was also one of nine countries that voted against a UN resolution condemning US President Donald Trump’s original December 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
“We very, very much appreciate what you did.” Netanyahu told Hector.
Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.