A senior Ugandan minister acknowledged for the first time on Friday that his country was “positively considering” a request by Israel to accept African asylum seekers.
In a statement released ahead of a press conference in Kampala, State Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees Musa Ecweru confirmed his country was in talks with Jerusalem to accept several hundred refugees deported from Israel.
“The State of Israel working with other refugees’ managing organizations has requested Uganda to allow about 500 Eritreans and Sudanese to relocate to Uganda. The government and ministry are positively considering the request,” he said.
He said accepting a small number of refugees from Israel would not make a difference to Uganda.
“My work is to manage refugees that have accepted to relocate to a third-party country. And Uganda accepted the 500 refugees from Israel and this is not a problem to Uganda,” he said. “We already have millions of refugees in Uganda from Somalia, Ethiopia so the few from Israel won’t be a problem to Uganda as a third-party country.”
HAPPENING: Hon Musa Echweru is addressing the media about the status of refugees in Uganda. pic.twitter.com/ZN1x0GZwzM
— Uganda Media Centre (@UgandaMediaCent) April 13, 2018
Ecweru denied that Israel was paying Uganda to take the asylum seekers, saying that the only motivation was humanitarian.
“The people saying on social media that countries give us money whenever we accept refugees to come in is false,” he said. “In fact, we are the ones who spend on these refugees.”
He also denied reports that Uganda had already accepted refugees from Israel.
“To my knowledge, no refugees from Israel have come in yet,” he said. “If they are here, they are trespassers.”
— Grainne Harrington (@GIHarrington) April 13, 2018
The Israeli government has until 12 p.m. on Sunday, April 15, to present the High Court of Justice with a finalized plan for the deportation of African migrants. Israel dispatched a special envoy to an unnamed country earlier this week, widely reported to be Uganda, to finalize an agreement.
Israel’s Channel 10 news reported Friday that the emissary has thus far failed to persuade the Ugandan authorities to sign off on a previous verbal agreement to take in a large number of migrant deportees.
Until now, Uganda has consistently denied that a deportation deal with Israel exists, despite reports that it was accepting migrants deported from Israel.
Uganda’s Foreign Minister Henry Okello Oryem said in a statement last week that his nation would “insist that the airlines return [the asylum seekers] to the country where they came from… We do not have a contract, any understanding, formal or informal, with Israel for them to dump their refugees here.”
Israel’s previous expulsion plans were based on “voluntary deportations,” meaning asylum seekers would sign a document stating they had left Israel by choice, and receive a $3,500 grant and a plane ticket to Rwanda or Uganda.
About 1,700 asylum seekers were “willingly deported” to Uganda in the past three years, but the government wants future deportations to take place much faster, at the rate of around 600 per month, rather than 600 per year. For this to happen, it needs a country that will accept asylum seekers who were forcibly deported, a stance that is unpopular in the international community.
A news report on Friday said visas issued by Israel, purportedly on behalf of Uganda, to African asylum seekers as they are about to leave the country are “totally fake.”
Forced deportations to a third country are 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.
There are approximately 38,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan.
Asylum seekers who were “willingly deported” to Uganda and Rwanda in the past have told The Times of Israel they faced serious danger and even imprisonment after arriving in Africa without proper documents, and were not allowed to stay in Rwanda but forced to cross the border illegally to other countries.
Talks with Rwanda faltered and officially fell apart after the country refused to accept asylum seekers whom Israel deported against their will. Rwandan officials also balked at the court requirement that Israeli officials follow up with asylum seekers deported there.
Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced, then almost immediately canceled, a deal with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to resettle approximately 16,250 asylum seekers in Western countries and give status and rights to an equal number of asylum seekers to stay in Israel.