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How Israel’s Secret Refugee Deals Collapsed in the Light of Day

Israel’s plan to send African asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda put years-long secret deals up for public and legal scrutiny. Yotam Gidron of the International Refugee Rights Initiative explains how Israel’s African deals over refugee transfers fell apart.

Written by Yotam Gidron Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
African migrants demonstrate with their arms crossed in Tel Aviv on February 24, 2018, against the Israeli government’s policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Israel’s Africa diplomacy has long been characterized by a large degree of informality and secrecy, and the charade surrounding the transfer of refugees from Israel to Uganda and Rwanda is no exception.

In January, Israel announced a plan to force all Sudanese and Eritreans out of the country. Unable to send them back to Eritrea or Sudan, the government planned to step up transfers to Uganda and Rwanda.

The history of the transfer deals between Israel and the two East African countries goes back several years. The scheme had largely taken place outside the realms of the law and away from the public’s eye. The Israeli government’s public statements on the deals have been riddled with half-truths.

In July 2013, an Israeli official told the press that the country was in the final stages of negotiating a deal to send African asylum seekers to “third countries” in Africa in return for funds and assistance in the fields of defense and agriculture. A month later, the Israeli government revealed that one of the countries was Uganda. The Ugandan government denied this.

By May 2014, the Israeli government announced that there were signed deals with two African countries, but neither the names of these countries nor the agreements themselves could be exposed because the countries requested that their identities remain confidential. By then, Israel was sending Sudanese and Eritreans to Uganda and Rwanda on a regular basis.

Neither Uganda nor Rwanda officially acknowledged being parties to an agreement with Israel. The scheme operated in an apparently completely informal manner: Israel provided asylum seekers with travel documents, one-way airline tickets and $3,500 in cash. Upon arrival in East Africa they were allowed out of the airport but were not granted any legal status. From there, they were largely on their own.

Most of those transferred did not stay in Uganda and Rwanda. With no documentation and an ambiguous position vis-a-vis the local authorities, they felt unsafe and vulnerable to exploitation. Many decided to take their chances and travel to Europe via Sudan, Libya and across the Mediterranean. For smugglers, the Israeli transfers created a good market.

This year, the Israeli government decided to scale up the removal of asylum seekers. While transfers until then were nominally voluntary, the new plan allowed for coerced deportations under the threat of indefinite detention. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summarized the new policy in a Facebook post: “The government approved a plan today that will give every infiltrator two options: a flight ticket out, or jail.”

The announcement of pending deportation was met with unprecedented levels of opposition from the Israeli public and attracted significant international attention. Demonstrations were held in front of Rwandan embassies in Israel and across the world, and the topic repeatedly made international headlines. In Israel, a demonstration against the deportation drew some 25,000 people, and petitions were brought before the Supreme Court challenging the plan.

The plan soon set Israel on a diplomatic collision course with Rwanda and Uganda, two of Israel’s best friends in Africa, undermining Netanyahu’s own efforts to improve Israel’s reputation in the continent.

Netanyahu pursued the expulsion in an attempt to please his supporters in Israel – to capitalize on the xenophobia and anti-African sentiments he has encouraged since coming to power in 2009. But the plan soon set Israel on a diplomatic collision course with Rwanda and Uganda, two of Israel’s best friends in Africa, undermining Netanyahu’s own efforts to improve Israel’s reputation in the continent.

With Netanyahu insisting that two “third countries” – which by then everyone knew were Uganda and Rwanda – agreed to accept refugees deported from Israel by force, the two nations found themselves under the international spotlight. By implication they were understood to be facilitating and even benefiting from Israel’s unlawful treatment of African refugees, causing both countries reputational damage. They could no longer keep quiet about their position on the matter. Whatever it was that Israel tried to offer or promised as compensation, it appears that it was not enough.

Rwanda officially stated that it “has never signed any secret deal with Israel” and clarified that it will only accept asylum seekers arriving “voluntarily and without any constraint.” Uganda similarly denied having any agreement with Israel. “We do not have a contract, any understanding, formal or informal, with Israel for them to dump their refugees here,” Uganda’s state minister of foreign affairs, Henry Okello Oryem, said.

Israel’s secret and informal transfer scheme could not withstand the light of day. Under public scrutiny, it unraveled. Netanyahu, realizing that his deportation plan was no longer defendable in court, announced that Israel had reached an agreement with UNHCR: 16,250 asylum seekers will be resettled in western countries while the rest will be allowed to stay in Israel and will be granted a legal status.

Hours after announcing the deal and following a backlash from his supporters and right-wing politicians, Netanyahu reversed his decision, canceling the agreement and promising to pursue the deportation of all Eritreans and Sudanese from the country. In a statement in Hebrew he posted on social media, Netanyahu blamed Rwanda – now publicly mentioning it by its name – for backing off from the transfer agreement.

Hoping to salvage the deportation plan, an Israeli envoy was immediately dispatched to Uganda to try to renegotiate a deal that the Israeli government would be able to show the Supreme Court. Uganda, reversing a position it has officially held for four years, suddenly said that it will consider taking 500 refugees from Israel, but the Israeli envoy nonetheless returned without a finalized deal. Israel announced that it was unable to reach an agreement with any “third country” that allows for forced deportations.

The ordeals of refugees in Israel are the result of bad policy-making and institutionalized xenophobia, not lack of resources.

What happens next? Earlier this week it was reported that the Israeli government is now considering reviving the agreement with UNHCR but is trying to renegotiate its terms so that the number of refugees being resettled from Israel will be increased.

With refugee resettlement needs far exceeding the places available, any agreement on the large-scale resettlement of refugees from Israel will set a problematic precedent. Israel is a wealthy country and is hosting a small community of less than 37,000 refugees. The ordeals of refugees in Israel are the result of bad policymaking and institutionalized xenophobia, not lack of resources. The agreement with UNHCR will risk encouraging other countries to ignore their legal obligations with the hope of achieving similar arrangements.

Unfortunately, however, other options are worse. Israel has long refused to abide by its legal responsibilities towards refugees and is unlikely to change its attitude soon. If the agreement with UNHCR is not revived, it will probably revert back to its earlier approach towards African asylum seekers: “Make their lives miserable” until they decide to leave the country.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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