Uganda on Thursday denied it had agreed to receive thousands of African migrants as part a deal with Israel.
The denial came a day after Israel launched a program to force some 38,000 migrants, mainly Eritreans and Sudanese, to leave the country.
Israel has not clearly said where the migrants will go, but tacitly recognizes it is too dangerous to return the Sudanese and Eritreans home.
As a result, according to activists in Israel, it has signed deals with Rwanda and Uganda, which agree to accept departing migrants on condition they consent to the arrangement.
Uganda, however, said it had made no such deal.
“Uganda is disturbed by these reports,” Foreign Minister Henry Okello Oryem told AFP. “We have no such agreement with the government of Israel to send refugees here.”
There was no immediate reaction from Rwanda.
Under Israel’s program, migrants have until the end of March to leave. Each will receive a plane ticket and $3,500 (2,900 euros) to do so, and those who remain will face arrest.
According to reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has further asked his security adviser to draw up a plan to forcibly expel undocumented migrants who are unwilling to leave by boarding them onto flights in handcuffs if necessary.
On Wednesday, Adi Drori-Avraham, from the Israeli group ASSAF (Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers), told AFP that “from what we know, Uganda is a party to the amended agreement, allowing that people can be coerced into leaving.
“It has published a denial, although I have to say that Uganda has for years been denying that it has some kind of deal with Israel,” he said. “But we see that thousands arrive there so I don’t know how much Uganda’s denials should be taken seriously.”
Many of the undocumented migrants from Africa say they are fleeing conflict and persecution and are seeking refugee status. Israeli officials contend they are economic migrants, and have resisted calls to recognize them as refugees.
The government has said it plans to close its Holot migrant detention center within months in anticipation of large-scale deportations to third-party countries, while those who refuse deportation will be jailed.
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.
In August, the High Court of Justice ruled the emigration policy was legal, but also said that Israeli authorities had to first ensure that the countries to which migrants were being deported were safe.
However, the 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.
It’s not clear how the new policy will fare in the High Court.