By Mebrahtu Ateweberhan and Petros Tesfagiorgis
This information is based on interviews conducted with Ataklti (an Eritrean refugee living in Israel), Sigal Kook Avivi (Human rights activist in Israel), Fishale Tesfay and Mebrahtom Hagos (Eritreans sent from Israel to Rwanda now living in Uganda and the UK, respectively).
The British and Rwandan governments have reached an agreement to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. The flights are meant to begin on 14 June, although legal challenges might delay these. Some of those facing this forcible deportation are so worried they have gone on hunger strike.
This is not the first time Rwanda has made such an agreement. Here we share the experience of Eritreans who were sent to Rwanda as part of a shameful secretive deal made with Israel that resulted in endangering the lives of thousands of Africans.
- In 2012 more than 60,000 Africans were living in Israel. More than 40,000 of these were Eritreans. They are commonly described as “infiltrators” by the Israeli government. They are not granted the status of refugees, with the rights that come with such a designation. They cannot establish normal lives, with jobs, homes and families.
- Currently, there are 20,479 Eritreans in Israel, and the overwhelming majority of these are single men. Between 10,000 to 15,000 of those who left Israel did so voluntarily because they found their lives in Israel so unbearable. Even now, their permits must be renewed every five years. This is an improvement from the situation five years ago when they had to renew residence every six months.
- The plan to transfer Africans from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda was reached in secret in 2012. Asylum seekers were not informed about the agreements, adding to their insecurity. In Israel, it was called “Assisted Voluntary Return”. “Returnees” were caught by surprise. It was too late to object when Israel started to move people to the Holot Desert detention centre and then deport them to Africa. It took time before protests started and local human rights activists and politicians got involved. Meretz, a left-wing party, now part of the current Israeli government, was instrumental in reversing the decision.
- It is hard to get the exact number of the people who were expelled from Israel under the Israel-Rwanda and Israel-Uganda “repatriation” schemes, because the information was kept secret. The programme is dubbed “a quiet expulsion” by Israeli human rights activists. It is thought that the figures are between 4,000 and 6,000. To this day, neither Uganda nor Israel has accepted that there was an agreement on refugee transfer between the two countries.
- Almost all the people who were sent to the Holot Desert detention centre (and later to Africa) were single men, because sending women and children would receive more public attention and put the government in a difficult position. “Most of us were single men and remain so,” says Ataklti.
- This is how the expulsion took place. First, the asylum seekers were told to accept the offer to be repatriated to Rwanda, or they would be sent to Holot and then sent to Africa. Those who accepted the offer did so under intense pressure because they did not want to go to Holot – a desolate desert prison camp. There were also rumours that they would get a chance to settle and lead a free life in Rwanda, including an opportunity to own businesses and get free farm land. They were also promised that they would get residence status in Rwanda and Uganda, on condition that they left Israel.
- Those that accepted the deal got a one-way plane ticket, a $3,500 “settlement grant” and an entry permit to Rwanda. It is reported that the Rwandese Government got $5000 in return. However, it is not clear what the whole transfer agreement entailed. Israeli human rights campaigners believe it included military aid and other favourable contracts for the Rwandan government.
- Returnees were transferred to Rwanda mainly by Turkish Airlines. About seven to twelve returnees were put on each flight, that often flew via Istanbul. Returnees were not certain if they were accompanied by Israeli security personnel on board. It looks like Turkish Airlines staff members were in charge throughout the flights, which suggested that there was an agreement between Israeli officials and Turkish Airlines.
- The $3,500 payment was given to the asylum seekers at the point of departure, together with the Rwandan entry permit.
- Upon arrival at Kigali Airport they were met by Rwandese security officials who had the details of each of the returnees. The first thing they did was take away the entry permit document provided to them in Israel. John, the immigration officer in charge and described as “very friendly” by most returnees, knew every detail of the returnees to the extent of calling them by their full names without referring to documents.
- They were transferred to a residence situated in an affluent area of Kigali. The service provided at the residence was described as satisfactory by most of the returnees, but their movement was restricted by security to the compound of the villa.
- After three nights (sometimes two) in the villa, they were driven to the border with Uganda. Payment for the Rwanda-Uganda trip ranged between 250 and 400 US dollars per person. The arrangement was described as semi-voluntary by the returnees. John would tell the returnees that Rwanda was itself a recovering nation, and there was nothing for them in terms of jobs, education, or business opportunities. He said the best option would be to move to Uganda where there were better opportunities. Nevertheless, most returnees had already made up their mind to leave Rwanda and happily accepted John’s suggestion. Hagos says, “It was a welcome offer, and I would have paid up to $1000. I had no other choice.”
- They were dropped close to the border with Uganda and told to cross the border on foot. Inside Uganda, some of them were met by Ugandan border patrol units and transferred to detention centres and later to the UNHCR and were provided temporary refugee status. Some of them travelled to Kampala by hiring local transport. Most of them stayed illegally in Uganda until they were ready for the next trip (to Europe).
- While in Israel, most of the returnees worked as daily labourers and had some savings. They had to withdraw all their money hastily and pass it to friends and relatives in Israel or elsewhere. Some of them carried large sums on top of the $3500 ‘repatriation’ money. This made them easy prey for criminal gangs in Rwanda and Uganda.
- Although the revocation of their entry permit was stopped and those who were sent to Rwanda in the latter stage of the project were allowed to get a legal status, most of them did not accept Rwanda as home. They quickly slipped into Uganda with the help of paid facilitators in both countries. Interviewees think none of those sent to Rwanda have settled there. “All of them moved to Uganda. Some of them are still there (in Uganda) or have moved,” says Hagos.
- Similarly, those who were sent to Uganda were promised that they would get at least a four-year residence permit and be allowed to pursue education or get a job. As in Rwanda, their entry permit was collected by Ugandan immigration officers. They were forced to stay indoors as they were targeted by corrupt officers. Those who ventured outside faced arrests and had to pay their way out, until the temporary residence permit arrived. Some had to pay more than $1,000 for a three-month visa illegally.
- Only a small minority of the returnees remain in Africa. The majority have left both countries, taking the dangerous Rwanda-Uganda-South Sudan-Sudan-Libya-Mediterranean route to Europe, becoming victims of human trafficking and other crimes in the process. It is reported that two of the Eritreans (names withheld) killed in Libya by jihadists in 2017 were returnees from Israel, while many remain trapped in Libya. The lucky few who made it to Europe are mostly in Switzerland, Germany and the UK.
- By comparison, returnees sent to Uganda fared better than those deported to Rwanda because Uganda has a bigger economy and there are already a sizeable number of Eritreans in the country. They also preferred Uganda as it serves as a better transit point on the way to another destination, primarily Europe.
- The scheme went on for four years (2013-2017). Following various protests by African asylum seekers and refugees, supported by Israeli human rights activists, Israeli court proceedings were launched. The court held an investigation, including interviews with some of the returnees in Rwanda and Uganda. The court found the scheme was illegal; that it was a violation of their human rights and ordered that it had to be halted.
The asylum seekers and Israeli human rights activists all testify that the Israeli-Rwanda “repatriation” was conducted under coercion. On entry to Rwanda, many of the returnees had their legal status revoked, as their entry permit given to them in Israel was withdrawn. They were left in limbo and forced to move to Uganda, starting them on the dangerous migration route all over again. These refugees had to escape kidnapping and organised trafficking by criminals in the Sahara and Sinai deserts, having survived being shot at by Egyptian border security guards when they were crossing the border into Israel in the first place.
The UK-Rwandan scheme
Regarding the deportation of asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda, all the interviewees point out that Rwanda is a small country that is already overwhelmed with refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. Rwanda is a source of refugees itself, with a questionable human rights record. It will not ensure the safe “integration into society and freedom of movement” as stated in the UK-Rwanda agreement.
Hagos said he would do everything in his power not to return to Rwanda, including committing suicide. He would start the trip to Europe the same day he arrived in Rwanda, if he was forced to make the journey. All the interviewees agree that Rwanda’s intentions were questionable and disingenuous at best. They point out that the country should begin by starting to help refugees closer to home.
The experience of the refugees and asylum seekers from Israel suggests that there is no guarantee that “returnees” from the UK will get adequate support to ensure self-reliance, such as the right to work and freedom of movement. It shows that they will not settle in Rwanda, but immediately seek ways of exiting the country, exposing them to traffickers and other criminals in the process.
It is recommended that the UK-Rwanda transfer scheme be stopped before it is too late.
Asylum seekers threatened by the UK-Rwanda agreement are advised to contact Sophie Lucas, Solicitor, Duncan Lewis for legal support (Duncan Lewis Solicitors Ltd, 143-149 Fenchurch St., London EC3M 6BL. Tell: 03337720409)
Mebrahtu Ateweberhan and Petros Tesfagiorgis are board members of Eritrea Focus.