Last month we wrote about the revelation that a number of African countries (dubbed “third countries”) are on the verge of signing an agreement with Israel to absorb African asylum seekers currently in Israel. These asylum seekers were mostly from Sudan and Eritrea and could not be sent there, so Israel was looking for “third countries” to take them. In return, Israel offered the new host countries “benefit packages” that include weapons and other arms.
On Thursday, the Israeli paper Haaretz reported that the “third country” is Uganda, and an agreement has been signed. According to Haaretz, Israel refuses to expose the details of that agreement but as far as it knows, the country would fund the flights of “immigrants to Uganda and their absorption there.” Haaretz also reported that the Israeli government would also provide deportees with a grant; about $1500.
Israel’s Justice Ministry clarified that the attorney general of Israel, Yehuda Weinstein, has approved the agreement with Uganda after hearing from Hagai Hadas, who was appointed Israel’s chief negotiator by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Justice Ministry brought up again the misused term “voluntary return” and emphasized that this is the only kind of repatriation that is talking place for the time being.
Human rights organizations in Israel were quick to issue a statement in which they doubted the reliability of the story, stating “Uganda is not a safe country for refugees from Israel, and that there is no way to ensure the safety of those deported there”. More importantly, Uganda’s government denied the existence of such an agreement (“There’s no way Uganda would enter such an arrangement”).
This morning Haaretz published that there is no agreement, only “talks.”
The Haaretz revelation is not something new. The last couple of years, there have been several publications that implied or directly discussed the efforts Israel is making to find a country that would be willing to absorb asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea.
In June 2008, it emerged that the prime minister and foreign affairs minister at the time (Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni respectively) approved a plan to try and transfer asylum seekers, mainly from Sudan, to African countries. According to Galei Zahal, the ministry of foreign affairs contacted all the African countries Israel has diplomatic connections with, among them Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Benin and offered a payment in return for absorbing thousands of asylum seekers living in Israel.
In October 2010, Netanyahu ordered resumption of the talks with African countries regarding the matter. According to a senior official in the ministry of foreign affairs, Israel was willing to pay millions of dollars for the cause. Ynet reported that Netanyahu was considering appointing someone to be a negotiator.
In May 2012, Parliament member and the chairman of the “Deportation Now” movement Danny Danon announced that he is working on a bill that would ensure that 80% of the “infiltrators” will be out of Israel in two years. According to the bill, one of the methods would be transferring “infiltrators” to Eastern European and African countries.
In August 2012 Netanyahu appointed the former senior Mossad official, Hagai Hadas, to lead the “repatriation” efforts.
In December 2012, Yedioth Ahronot reported that Hadas has recently visited secretly a few African countries with the purpose of finding a destination for this plan. The article also mentioned that in November 2011, Israel contacted the prime minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga, and asked him to absorb a group of asylum seekers. “Sure,” Odinga laughed, “I’ll take yours and you’ll take mine, I have 800,000.”
In February 2013, imprisoned asylum seekers received a letter suggesting they go to Uganda. According to The Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Eritrean detainee in Saharonim prison was told that he “must go to Eritrea or Uganda and there is no other way out of here.”
Following this move, last March, one Eritrean went on a flight to Uganda, which was funded by Israel, but was denied entry to the country. Refusing to go back to Eritrea, he was sent to Egypt and was arrested there.
NGOs suggested the purpose of an ambiguous agreement with Uganda is to delay the High Court of Justice from ruling on the petition calling for the abrogation of the Prevention of Infiltration Law and to pressure asylum-seekers in Israel to leave Israel, even if it meant risking their lives.
Haaretz‘s story last week follows an announcement by Interior Minister, Gideon Sa’ar, that Israel, right after the Jewish Holidays, would initiate a big operation to deport immigrants from Sudan and Eritrea and would take measures against those who refuse to leave Israel.
Sa’ar mentioned that among other measures, Israel would stop extending visas and would start enforcing laws to prevent employers from hiring asylum seekers. According to Sa’ar, Israel would encourage “voluntary return” of asylum seekers in the cities and in the detention facilities. “All these measures we are taking will increase the numbers,” promised Sa’ar.
This won’t be first time that Israeli officials fantasize about transferring refugees to other countries. As historian Tom Segev writes in his book 1967 (pp. 536-539):
Few Israelis knew about the transfer project. Everything was done secretly, as if it were something to be ashamed of…
Upon departing the country, the emigrants had to leave behind the identification cards they had received from the military government. They also had to sign a form declaring, in Hebrew and Arabic, that they were leaving willingly.
…As it turned out, most of refugees did not leave Gaza in return for plane ticket. Mass deportations were more or less impossible, because diplomats and the world press were always watching. But there was a third way. A senior official in the Foreign Ministry Michael Comay, wrote to ambassador Harman that the military governor of the Gaza Strip, Mordechai Gur, was pushing people to leave Gaza by eroding their standard of life; he said Gur himself had admitted to this.