The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is in high-level talks with the government to find safe alternatives for the relocation of the 20,000 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants slated for deportation beginning April 1.
Although the Interior Ministry has yet to identify the country that has agreed to accept the African men of working age, it has widely been reported to be either Rwanda or Uganda, both of which are considered unsafe by the UNHRC.
On Wednesday, Sharon Harel, the organization’s external-relations officer, discussed the UNHRC’s concerns and alternate plans to safely resettle the at-risk migrants.
The best-case scenario would be to find EU nations to absorb those targeted for deportation until it is safe for them to return to their countries of origin, she said.
“We are looking for solutions that will enable nationals of Sudan and Eritrea who are currently in Israel to be safely relocated into a third country in a Western destination, which would be more than appreciated and valued at this stage,” Harel said. “We have serious concerns about the well being of individuals sent by Israel to third African countries. We have testimonies from individuals who end up in Rwanda and Uganda describing very difficult situations.”
IN RWANDA, Harel said deportees were not given status or rights, despite assurances from the autocratic nation’s government.
“After they arrived at the airport they were taken aside by people from immigration, their official documents to enter Rwanda and other ID documents were confiscated, and they were taken either to a hotel or villa where they were locked inside and told not to leave,” she said. “Then, they said that within 12 hours of arrival they were approached by someone who told them that they shouldn’t stay in Rwanda because there was nothing for them to do there and should pay him $250 to smuggle them to Uganda.”
Among the roughly 2,000 Eritreans and Sudanese migrants who accepted $3,500 from the government to voluntarily leave the country for Rwanda, the UNHRC was only able to receive regular updates from seven individuals, Harel said.
“They said they were only able to get tourist visas for three-month periods, but no residency or work permits,” she said. “Some of them lived there for three or four years without any official status and were regularly stopped in the street by security [personnel] who detained them until an immigration officer came to release them.”
“Most of them are homeless, living on the streets – and are just surviving there by counting on the support of locals who may provide a hot meal,” Harel said.
In terms of the money the Israeli government gives migrants to self-deport, which Harel said should have supported them for up to two years in Rwanda, most of the deportees were either extorted or preyed upon by the local population.
“[Locals] take advantage of them because they don’t speak the language and are foreigners,” she said. “We’re talking about people who are really trying to survive.”
IN TERMS OF UGANDA, Harel said asylum claims are rejected out of hand.
“They didn’t get any status there – not even a tourist visa,” she said. “Nothing.”
Moreover, Harel said it is virtually impossible to routinely monitor the well being of deportees in either country for extended periods.
“We don’t have proper access to the refugees, or any indication that they live there peacefully in a dignified way and have access to work,” she said.
Asked what happens to migrants after they leave Rwanda and Uganda, Harel said many attempt to enter EU countries, where the asylum acceptance rate for Eritreans is 92% and nearly 60% for Sudanese.
“Some died in the Mediterranean, but those who made it to Italy or Germany, for example, were given refugee status,” she said. “We have regular briefings with EU countries about absorbing refugees from Israel, but Europe is facing a major refugee influx and has strict quotas, so it is difficult to find one country to absorb them.”
Due to the inability to find a sufficient amount of placements for asylum-seekers, Harel said the UNHRC’s first priority is safely relocating special-needs candidates.
In the meantime, she said the organization is actively pursuing two other “durable” solutions.
“One solution is local integration for refugees who have lived in Israel for a very long time and have integrated naturally through marriage, employment or education,” she said.
With respect to south Tel Aviv, where the vast majority of the 38,000 African migrants in Israel live, Harel said the UNHRC is in talks with the government to use employment solutions to relocate willing workers across the country, instead of utilizing workers from other countries.
“We advocate vocational training so these people could find work outside of Tel Aviv to relieve the pressure there,” she said. “If we’re talking about reducing the tension in south Tel Aviv, this is one way out.”
Moreover, Harel said proper training could result in job opportunities outside of Israel.
“This is also something we’re trying to promote via different government channels,” she said. “If jobs are offered in different countries, we are confident that they will follow the opportunity to live elsewhere, as long as they are not being exploited or placed in slave-like conditions.”
The second solution, Harel said, is voluntary return to their countries of origin, albeit with important caveats.
“When we say ‘voluntary,’ we mean that no one is being pushed out, or given ultimatums like they will have to go to prison if they don’t leave,” she said. “Also, we must verify that their country of origin is safe – that the war is over, and that life and the economy are getting back to normal.”
Saying that most refugees want to return to their countries of origin, Harel said the latter option is overwhelmingly the most popular.
“I have witnessed the great excitement of hundreds of refugees from Liberia who were able to return home,” she said. “It is amazing to experience their happiness.”
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