Isaac Atwal. Friday 11 September 2015, The Guardian
International Refugee Rights Initiative claims Israel has failed to live up to its promises to monitor and support Eritreans and Sudanese in their new countries
The deportation under a voluntary scheme of Eritreans and Sudanese from Israel to “third countries” in Africa is exposing them to danger, with some being left without proper documentation and at risk of discrimination in unfamiliar environments, a report released this week says.
International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) interviewed 24 asylum seekers who were sent to Uganda and Rwanda between February 2014 and May 2015 as part of the voluntary deportation scheme announced by Israel in March.
Although Israel has never named the “third countries”, they are widely understood to be Rwanda and Uganda, the report says. “Contrary to the Israeli authorities’ rhetoric, departures from Israel are neither voluntary, nor do they ensure the safety of those leaving the country. While Israel presents Rwanda and Uganda as safe destinations, in reality they are often the starting point for a dangerous journey that not all asylum seekers survive,” the report says.
In March, Israel’s immigration authorities said they would begin deporting asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan to countries in Africa, even if against their will. At the time, interior minister Gilad Erdan said the move would “encourage infiltrators to leave the borders of the state of Israel in an honourable and safe way, and serve as an effective tool for fulfilling our obligations towards Israeli citizens and restoring the fabric of life to the residents of south Tel Aviv”.
An estimated 41,000 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals currently reside in Israel, of whom about 2,000 were being held in the Holot detention camp in the Negev desert, until the release of 1,178 in August. The IRRI report said Israel had failed to live up to its promises to monitor and support the Eritreans and Sudanese in their new countries – echoing criticism also made by an Israeli rights group in April.
“These asylum seekers are sent to Uganda and Rwanda with a promise from the Israeli authorities that they will be provided with the necessary papers to enable them to stay legally in the receiving country. However, our findings show that, in reality, they do not receive any legal status. They are left with no valid legal documents upon arrival and are either encouraged to leave these countries, live below the radar and without legal status, and/or hide the fact that they came from Israel,” IRRI said.
It said its research showed that most of the asylum seekers who were sent to Rwanda were subsequently smuggled out of the country to Kampala, the capital of neighbouring Uganda. “From Kampala, the majority travel north to South Sudan, Sudan and Libya with many ultimately risking crossing the Mediterranean or falling into the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS),” the report added.
It said that some people sent directly to Uganda were given no information about their legal status and had their travel documents taken from them when they arrived. Eritreans and Sudanese are entitled to collective protection under the 1951 UN refugee convention, to which Israel is a signatory, because their lives would be in danger if they were sent back to their countries of origin.
The embassy of Israel in London said the country strictly applies the convention, including the basic idea that no person is to be returned to a country where he/she faces serious threats to life or freedom.
“The safe relocation policy is based on the following criteria: that no wars or general disturbances are taking place in the third countries; that there exists no UNHCR (UN refugee agency) recommendations against return to the third countries; that life and freedom would not be at risk in the third countries based on race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social or political group; that relocated individuals in the third countries will have access to the asylum procedure or enjoy temporary protection; that the third countries are obligated to allow the relocated individuals means of dignified living (at least a possibility to stay and to work for a living),” the embassy said in an email response.
The IRRI report quoted one Sudanese man who left Israel for Uganda describing his arrival at Entebbe airport in Kampala: “We got here, and this woman waited for us in the airport. It seemed like something [was] not entirely right. As if they are doing some kind of a shady business. She took all our documents and put [them] in a plastic bag, and then she called a taxi. We left and she said, ‘Goodbye’. I asked if I could have a telephone number, just in case. She said, ‘No’.”
Lucy Hovil, a senior researcher with IRRI, said Israel had said it would set up a monitoring system from May this year to follow the asylum seekers after their move. But none of those interviewed had heard of the system, and its findings are confidential, she said.
In late August, Human Rights Watch condemned Israel’s decision to ban Eritrean and Sudanese nationals recently released from the Holot detention facility in the Negev from living and working in Tel Aviv and Eilat, saying the move violated their freedom of movement.
The ban was announced on 23 August, three days before the Israeli high court’s deadline for the release of anyone held at Holot for more than one year. The authorities’ release of 1,178 Eritreans and Sudanese from Holot took place on 25-26 August.
IRRI called on the Israeli government to stop detaining Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, close the Holot facility, and not detain those who do not agree to leave for third countries. It also called on Uganda to urge Israel to stop sending Eritreans and Sudanese to the country, and asked Rwanda to only accept asylum seekers if an official and public agreement with Israel was in place.