In Uganda’s capital Kampala, there is a sign in Eritrean script pointing towards an alley: A small hotel with few rooms, mostly empty. In room number 8, an old man sits on a worn-out couch. His pants and shirt are stained, and he wears flip-flops. Deep scars run across his arms. His fingers fidget with his sleeve. He wants to stay anonymous; his lawyer would prefer the same for security reasons. “He has been through a lot,” says the lawyer about his client and speaks with him in Tigrinya, one of their home country Eritrea’s main languages.[1]

The lawyer has been living in Ugandan exile for many years. In Kampala, he specializes in asylum procedures for his compatriots. Offering one of the world’s most liberal immigration policies, Uganda has welcomed refugees from Congo, Burundi, South Sudan or Eritrea for decades. They used to come voluntarily, but for three years the lawyer has been hearing incredible stories about deportations from Israel. Many of his clients can really show documents in Hebrew and identity cards issued by Israel’s Prison Service. Most, like the old man, even speak Hebrew.

The lawyer translates his story. Once a high-ranking officer in Eritrea’s military, he was forced to flee in 2008 after refusing an order by President Afewerki. He reports that the dangerous journey saw him taken to the Sinai Peninsula via Sudan by smugglers, where he was taken captive by criminals for three months, until his family transferred $25,000. Otherwise, they would have cut out his kidney. This happens to many captives, he reports. After receiving the ransom, the kidnappers let him go near the Israeli border.

The migration route from Africa via Sinai to the Middle East is one of the world’s oldest. It was taken by the Africans who left their continent around 55,000 years ago to settle in Europe and Asia.[2] The route was notorious for its slave trade during the Colonial Era. Until a few years ago, most migrants heading for Europe came across the Egyptian peninsula, with horrible outcomes. The flow ebbed in 2010 and 2011, when more and more Eritreans reported being kidnapped and tortured. Some fell victim to organ traders and lost a kidney, because their families did not wire the ransom money.[3]

At the same time, in November 2010, Israel began building a fortified fence along the border with Egypt. Today, it is seen as a model for an effective barrier against terrorists and migrants, especially by the USA. The US Department of Homeland Security reports that the number of illegal border crossings from Egypt to Israel was 16,000 in 2011 – five years after completion of the fence, it fell to 20.[4] So the border is practically impenetrable.

Back in 2008, the old Eritrean is lucky. When he is set free, there is no barrier yet. There are heavily armed special forces though, who detain him and later set him free. He spends six years in Tel Aviv, learns Hebrew and cleans houses to stay above water. Every three months, he stands in line at the Population Immigration and Borders Authority to extend his visa for another three months. Then in 2014 the government decides to clear the streets of refugees. This was when his life changed, says the old man in Kampala.[5]

Refugees: ‘infiltrators’ and ‘a cancer’

Almost 2,200 miles north of Uganda stands the Holot migrant detention center in the flickering heat of the Negev, just south of the desert town of Be’er Sheva. At the entrance, armed guards check the ID cards of the Prison Service, which runs the facility. The people locked up here are those who might one day seek the lawyer’s service in Kampala. Most are Eritreans, some from Sudan or even from Côte d’Ivoire. High fences with barbed wire, watchtowers and guards with heavy machine guns – Holot looks like a jail for dangerous criminals. Yet this is still the soft version, since inmates can move freely during the day and even leave the premises. Once a day, they all have to stand still for roll call.

Next to Holot towers the Saharonim supermax prison. It was built in 2007 in the military zone along the Egyptian border as a prison for so-called infiltrators. After amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Law in 2012 and 2013, this includes all ‘infiltrators’ living in the country illegally,[6] which includes refugees who cross the border illegally like the old Eritrean.

Israel’s Ministry of Interior counts around 45,000 refugees staying in Israel.[7] Most are Eritreans. In Israel, their legal situation is especially tricky. Although Israel recognizes that Eritrea is run by a criminal regime, which prevents Eritreans from being deported, it does not grant them full asylum, merely status as a ‘temporary protection group’ without full legal rights. They get only a limited visa which they must renew every three months.[8]

The Knesset has tightened Israel’s laws against ‘infiltration’ several times in recent years. The 2012 amendment provided for the arrest of all ‘infiltrators’ for up to three years without trial. Saharonim Prison was built because regular jails were overcrowded. The law states that refugees would have the opportunity to demand asylum from prison. A group of Israeli human rights organizations went to court against the amendment – with initial success: In September 2013, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected the amendment, calling the prison terms ‘disproportionate’. But the government immediately submitted a new draft, which only mentioned ‘open’ detention for refugees until the situation in their home country changed or they were willing to return voluntarily.[9]

This is the reason why the Holot open detention center was built. But the NGOs sued again and won. In September 2014, the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional for its ‘disproportionate’ violation of refugees’ basic rights. The judgment ordered Holot to be closed within 90 days, but again the government submitted a softer draft. This draft limited detention at Holot to 20 months, which was reduced to 12 months after the NGOs sued once more.[10]

Since the 2013 amendment, the Ministry of Interior ‘invites’ asylum seekers to Holot. From now on, they can only submit asylum claims from Holot, and are no longer allowed to work while waiting for their decision. If their claim is rejected, they have one choice: leave the country voluntarily or get sent next door – to Saharonim, for an unlimited time.[11] Israel is doing pretty much all it can to make life miserable for refugees and get rid of them as fast as possible.

Israeli politicians also have extreme words for the refugees. The current Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, called African migrants ‘a cancer’, while former Minister of Interior Eli Yishai promised to make sure every last one of them would leave the country.[12]

State-sponsored human trafficking

When the old Eritrean’s temporary visa runs out in July 2014, he is still subject to the tighter law from 2013. ‘At the office, the authorities took my papers and locked me up in Holot,’ recalls the old man in Kampala. Here they gave him a paper in Hebrew to sign – to confirm his ‘voluntary’ return. ‘We had no real choice,’ he says. After 18 days in Holot, uniformed security contractors and two plainclothes officers drive him and five other Eritreans to Tel Aviv’s airport. He found the procedure very strange – they passed through no official entrances or security checks and his passport did not get an exit stamp. Instead, he received $3,500 in cash, for which he had to sign a receipt. Nobody told him where the plane would go.

According to a 2015 report by the International Refugees Rights Initiative (IRRI), 1,500 Africans left Israel under ‘massive pressure’ from early 2014 to September 2015.[13] The IRRI estimates that this figure could have increased to 3,000 by May 2017.[14] The Africans land in so-called safe third countries – which Israel refuses to identify. In a statement by the Israeli government, the Prime Minister explains that naming these states which admit the ‘infiltrators’ [sic!] would harm Israel’s relations with these countries.[15]

However, there is increasing evidence for the deportation destinations. Two Eritrean refugees went to court alongside Israeli NGOs to dispute the secret agreements. Their petition was denied in November 2015, but the judgment mentions the states ‘R’ and ‘U’[16] – which likely refers to Rwanda and Uganda.

‘It was a small airplane,’ remembers the old man. He did not know which national flag was on it; he assumes it was a diplomat’s plane. The long flight followed the Nile into Africa. He recalls African and Israeli diplomats sitting beside him, wearing passports around their necks. ‘It wasn’t until I saw the airport building that I knew: now we’re in Rwanda.’ He remembers being gripped by fear: ‘I thought Eritrean spies were already waiting for me.’ From his military service he knows the two states have close ties.

On the runway, the officials entered limousines with blue beacons. ‘The other deportees and I were led away by Rwandan agents.’ Again, no security check, no passport control – instead they took away his Eritrean passport and Hebrew papers. He got to keep only the ID card of the Israeli Prison Service. He and the other five Eritreans were driven to a house, a two-story, multi-bedroom mansion behind a high wall. He doesn’t know details. ‘The guy who placed us in the house said his name was John.’

Other deported Eritreans tell the same story. They all describe the same house in Kigali, the same ‘John,’ the same procedure. John explained that Israel’s government paid the room for three nights. On the second day, John showed up again and said a car would be waiting in the morning to take them to Uganda. The old man had to pay John $250 for the transfer.

The car dropped off the refugees high up in the mountains, a short distance from the checkpoint. They crossed the border illegally on foot – their passports were gone anyway. A hired shepherd boy guided them along a rough trail, reports the old man. On the Ugandan side, a minibus was waiting on a field path and drove them to Kampala for another $250. Halfway along the route, they switched to an off-road vehicle driven by an Eritrean. This time the refugees had to pay $400. Their countryman brought them to this back-alley hotel in Kampala.

The old man’s story matches the ones told by many other interviewed Eritrean deportees.[17] Some were brought to Rwanda by official carriers like Turkish Airlines, but all of them arrived in the same house in Kigali, met the same ‘John’ and had to hand over their passports.

While in principle, it is not illegal to move refugees back and forth internationally, the UN refugee agency UNHCR has set up guidelines for transfers to third countries. ‘It is the duty of the state handing them over to make sure that they will not be subjected to any risk in their destination country,’ says Andie Lambe of the IRRI in Kampala. ‘But all their documents and passports are taken away upon arrival in Uganda or Rwanda. They receive no legal status of any sort, because they are coming to Uganda from a safe third country like Israel, so their legal situation is precarious.’ The Eritrean lawyer confirms this – none of his clients received asylum in Uganda.

Uganda can refuse to grant them asylum, because they come from a safe country. They have broken the law by crossing the border without valid papers. Uganda can jail and try them as criminals. According to the Geneva Refugee Convention, the State of Israel is responsible. It must guarantee that the safety and rights of refugees are ensured in the destination countries. Uganda in turn has the right to deport them back to Israel, if their asylum claims are rejected. ‘This is a vicious cycle,’ says Lambe of the IRRI. Many have no choice but to leave Uganda again – illegally, with the help of smugglers. ‘Most of the deportees we interviewed end up trying to use the remaining money to get to Europe and escape their lawless situation,’ Lambe says. Hence, Israel is indirectly funding the trafficking business: ‘The money they get from Israel makes them vulnerable to exploitation, because the agents know about it by now.’

Despite repeated requests, a response from Israel’s Ministry of Interior was not obtainable.[18] However, Minister of Interior Gilad Erdan confirmed the practice in an interview with Israel News in March 2015: ‘We give them a package that includes a flight and $3,500 – no small sum in these countries.’[19] Uganda’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Henry Okello Oryem, speaking to the local Daily Monitor in April 2016 stated that there was no formal arrangement ‘whatsoever’ between Uganda and Israel.[20] Yet, more than 150 deported Eritreans seized without passports were imprisoned in Uganda in 2016, confirmed a Ugandan lawyer working for the immigration office. Uganda’s State Minister for Relief and Disaster Preparedness, Musa Ecweru, clarified in an interview that his government would investigate the cases: ‘Refugees should never be the subjects of bilateral government agreements,’ he warned, ‘This would make a mockery of all international conventions.’[21]

‘Israel has looked around for ways to get rid of the refugees,’ Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said in an interview with the German tageszeitung in January 2016.[22] ‘This has been debated in our bilateral relations with Israel.’ Yet she remained vague on whether the agreement was finally sealed and under which conditions. She recalls long discussions with her immigration office: ‘I’m not sure where we stand right now.’ Discussion topics she mentions include the freedom to travel within the East African Community (EAC), and also between Rwanda and Uganda. ‘How can we ensure that people will stay? It’s easy to travel back and forth in East Africa.’

Although more and more cases are coming to light and the evidence at the court in Tel Aviv is overwhelming, no country wants to take responsibility for the fate of the deportees. Deportations to Rwanda and Uganda continue, albeit to a lesser extent. In early 2018, Israel’s immigration service in Holot began issuing deportation notices to young Sudanese and Eritrean males. These clearly state that the recipient must voluntarily leave the country within 60 days – either to Rwanda or to his home country.[23] In early 2019, Israel’s Attorney General instructed the immigration service to examine whether fleeing Eritrea’s national service was really legitimate grounds for asylum. If the service revises this previous regulation, Israel can directly reject and deport about 25,000 Eritrean asylum seekers – even to their home country if necessary.[24]

Those deported to Rwanda and Uganda, like the old Eritrean, are stranded in Kampala. Some are lucky, because the lawyer helps them finally get a residence permit, but it remains limited to three months, similar to the procedure in Israel. The lawyer’s conclusion: ‘It is tragic that we Eritreans are now treated like commodities and no longer like people.’

Deportations in full swing

Renowned regional newspaper The East African speaks of a multi-million-dollar deal between Rwanda, Uganda and Israel, in which all sides make a profit.[25] Israel repays the generous readmission of deportees by offering its services as a partner in the fight against terrorism.

More than 50 Israeli business people joined Avigdor Lieberman on his trip to Rwanda’s capital Kigali in June 2014, only a few weeks before the first deportations started. Israel’s foreign minister signed a deal for a closer partnership between the two states.[26] Rwanda announced it would open an embassy in Tel Aviv. In March 2015, Colonel Joseph Rutabana, previously secretary of state at Rwanda’s Ministry of Defence and responsible for the procurement of new weapons technologies, was sent as a diplomat. According to information from military personnel in both armies, Rwanda and Uganda have since been able to train their special forces with drones and high-resolution cameras from Israel. At the time, deportations of asylum seekers were already in full swing. The same plane that brought trainees of the security forces to Tel Aviv took refugees back to Africa.

In November 2014, two Israelis were arrested at Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport in connection with arms shipments for Uganda’s special forces. President Yoweri Museveni personally campaigned for their release. Investigations by local journalists uncovered that agents of the Israeli arms exporter association Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) are active in Uganda. They usually run private security companies, as did the two arrested Israelis.[27] A UN expert report published in August 2016 on the war in South Sudan, which is being waged with the help of Uganda’s special forces, also mentions arms deliveries from Israel.[28] In May 2015, Israel’s Ministry of Defense declared that arms exports to Africa had increased by 40 percent in 2014. More and more African delegations were seen at the weapons industry trade shows in Tel Aviv. Even back in 2011, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) ranked Rwanda and Uganda among the ‘top ten’ state recipients of Israeli defense and security technology in Africa.[29]

To seal this new partnership, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli Prime Minister in 30 years to travel to East Africa in July 2016. In Kenya, he assured his support for building a fence along the border to neighboring Somalia to ward off terrorists and refugees. In Uganda, he was received by President Museveni on the tarmac of the international airport in the small town of Entebbe. Netanyahu was deeply moved: On this runway on the shore of Lake Victoria, his brother had been killed 40 years earlier as Israeli special forces stormed an Air France plane in which Palestinian terrorists were holding Israeli passengers hostage. Netanyahu’s visit was to usher in a new era of friendship. He then visited the genocide memorial in Rwanda’s capital Kigali. At the mass grave of the Tutsi murdered in 1994, he laid down a wreath – a symbolic gesture between two countries whose populations had suffered genocide. The last official act was the signing of a partnership agreement on business, agriculture as well as security and defense.[30]

When Ugandan journalists in an interview asked Netanyahu about the deported refugees, he did not deny the deportations, but said that the people coming to Israel in large numbers were migrants seeking work – healthy young men, mostly in their early twenties – and not refugees.[31]

  1. This quote and following ones from interviews with Eritrean deportees from Israel and their lawyer, Kampala, 24 June 2015
  2. Daily Mail (2015) ‘The Egyptian in all of us: First modern humans spread out of Africa into Europe and Asia from the Sinai Peninsula’, 28 May 2015 |
  3. Van Reisen, M., Estefanos, M. and Rijken, C. (2012) ‘Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between Life and Death’, Brussels, October 2012 |
  4. ‘Chairman Johnson Releases Report on Israeli Homeland Security and Applicable Lessons for the United States’, Press release by Dept. of Homeland Security, Washington, D.C., 1 February 2017 |
  5. Human Rights Watch (2014) ‘Make Their Lives Miserable – Israel’s Coercion of Eritrean and Sudanese Asylum Seekers to Leave Israel’, September 2014 |
  6. Ibid.
  7. Overview by Israeli Ministry of Interior about the number of infiltrators as of 2016 |
  8. Human Rights Watch (2014) ‘Make Their Lives Miserable – Israel’s Coercion of Eritrean and Sudanese Asylum Seekers to Leave Israel’, September 2014 |
  9. Background report about the development of the Israeli Prevention of Infiltration Law from 2012 to 2016 on the website of Israeli refugee organization ‘Hotline’ | Judgement in English |
  10. Ibid.
  11. Human Rights Watch (2014) ‘Make Their Lives Miserable – Israel’s Coercion of Eritrean and Sudanese Asylum Seekers to Leave Israel’, September 2014 |
  12. tageszeitung (2016) Quotes from Knaul, Susanne and Schlindwein, Simone: ‘Die Währung Mensch’, 26 January |
  13. IRRI report (2015) ‘I was left with nothing: “Voluntary” departures of asylum seekers from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda’, September 2015 |
  14. Background talk with Andie Lambe of IRRI, Kampala, 24 May 2017
  15. Answer of the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel to an inquiry from the Supreme Court, Jerusalem, 30 March 2014
  16. Bob, Yonah Jeremy (2015) ‘Court upholds policy of “voluntary” departure or jail for illegal migrants’, Jerusalem Post, 10 November |
  17. Interviews led by IRRI in 2014 and 2015, Kampala, June 2015
  18. Quotes from Knaul, Susanne and Schlindwein, Simone (2016) ‘Die Währung Mensch’, tageszeitung, 26 January |
  19. Israel News (2015) ‘Israel and Rwanda confirm “multimillion dollar” cash-for-refugees deal’, 4 March |
  20. Daily Monitor (2016) ‘Government protests dumping of immigrants into country’, 3 May |
  21. Interview with refugee minister Musa Ecweru, Kampala, 1 June 2017
  22. These and other quotes from interview led by tageszeitung editor Dominic Johnson with Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Louise Mushikiwabo, Berlin, 29 October 2015
  23. Haaretz (2018) ‘Israel Starts Issuing Deportation Notices to African Asylum Seekers’, 4 February |
  24. Haaretz (2019) ‘Israel Examines Whether Desertion From Eritrean Army Is Grounds for Asylum’, 2 January |
  25. The East African (2015) ‘President Paul Kagame confirms Rwanda-Israel deal to host African immigrants’, 2 April |
  26. Karuhanga, James and Musoni, Edwin (2014) ‘Rwanda, Israel sign deal for stronger ties’, The New Times, 11 June |
  27. Matsiko, Haggai (2015) ‘Museveni intervenes in Israeli arms dealer case.’ The Independent, 15 February |
  28. Oduha, Joseph (2016) ‘Israeli arms fuelling South Sudan conflict-Report’, The East African, 24 October |
  29. Wezeman, Siemon T. (2011) ‘Israeli arms transfers to Subsahara Africa’, SIPRI Background Paper, October 2011 |
  30. The New Times (2016) ‘Israel Premier makes historic visit to Rwanda, pledges stronger ties’, 7 July |
  31. The East African (2016) ‘Q & A with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’, The East African, 6 July |


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