April could be the cruelest month for Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel.
Although the April 1 Deportation D Day has been delayed until after Passover, our government still insists it will launch its program to expel thousands of African asylum seekers to third African countries.
To date, Rwanda and Uganda continue to deny that they have signed a secret agreement with Israel to take Israel’s African asylum seekers. Rwanda and Uganda, which have already received hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from neighboring countries, have also vigorously proclaimed that they would never accept asylum seekers sent to their country against their will. If not Rwanda or Uganda, where would our African asylum seekers be sent? Some hitherto unnamed African country? Our government claims it cannot disclose details concerning the terms of the agreements between Israel and the African countries taking the deportees because this would likely “cause harm to the State of Israel’s foreign policy.”
Secrecy is usually justified on security grounds. Is Israel’s security really at risk? If so, where is the proof? If not, then why the secrecy? And how would disclosure harm Israel’s foreign policy? Would disclosure embarrass Rwanda and Uganda because they would be exposed as liars in denying the existence of an agreement to take in the asylum seekers? Or would revealing the details of the agreement embarrass Israel? The public and the asylum seeker community should have the right to know what’s in the agreements.
The Public Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA) responsible for handling immigration affairs continues to assure Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers from Darfur and other non-Arab African Muslim regions that they will be sent to a safe country if they sign voluntary deportation papers. The PIBA also maintains that the deportees will receive residence permits allowing them to work. These promises have been made before, and not kept.
Instead of being given residence and work permits, most of the asylum seekers were quickly deprived of their money, dumped on the borders of neighboring countries and obliged to suffer hunger, torture and death in their efforts to make their way to Europe with little money and no papers.
After hearing so many horror stories as to what happened to their friends when they arrived in the “safe” countries, it is not surprising that African asylum seekers in Israel don’t see the $3,500 offered them as a credible incentive to accept voluntary deportation. We shall soon find out if most prefer prison to deportation.
Rwanda and Uganda have adopted relatively open and generous immigration policies in taking in large numbers of asylum seekers from neighboring countries and allowing many to work outside of UN-sponsored refugee camps. Uganda now has 1.2 million South Sudanese, 230,000 Congolese and over 32,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Burundi. Rwanda has over 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mostly from the Congo and Burundi.
Unfortunately, the situation of asylum seekers from the Congo (DRC: Democratic Republic of Congo), Burundi,and South Sudan has deteriorated because of rising numbers of people fleeing violence in those countries and decreased funding for maintaining refugee camps and services.
On February 22, Rwandan government security forces killed 11 Congolese and wounded many others when Congolese refugees marched out of the Kiziba refugee camp to protest a 25% cut in food rations by the UNHCR.
Rwanda already has over 85,000 refugees living just in the capital (Kigali) and Mahama camp, which places a huge strain on resources for a small poor country like Rwanda. A UNCHR report described the situation in September 2017: “Refugees continue to live in overcrowded and congested camps, facing insecurity, deterioration of emergency shelters, shortages of water and food, and oversubscribed health and education services.”
“We don’t have any more space, which is the main challenge we have for now. New arrivals have to wait for weeks, sometimes months before they can be relocated.”
The situation is no better in Uganda, which has become the largest refugee center in Africa with 1.4 million refugees. The number of refugees from South Sudan alone has soared from 229,000 in 2013 to 1.2 million in 2018. Uganda has received less than 20% of the funding needed to sustain existing numbers of asylum seekers.
Reports by UN and other aid agencies indicate that East Africa’s refugee camps will be facing a worsening humanitarian crisis due to continued violence in the region, drought, food shortages and massive underfunding of refugee services.
Rwanda and Uganda can hardly be called “safe” countries for the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers our government wishes to deport. How ironic is it for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to declare that Israel as a small country cannot afford to take in refugees? Rwanda has a per capita income of less than $800. Israel’s per capita income is over $40,000, or 50 times that of Rwanda. Rwanda has more than four times the numbers of asylum seekers and refugees in Israel.
In 10 years, Israel granted refugee status to less than 20 Eritreans and Sudanese. In response to the rising tide of public protest against forced deportation, the government has “softened” its stand. The PIBA just offered to allow half of the 40,000 asylum seekers and their children to stay in exchange for deporting 20,000 others.
Single males are fair game, especially those who didn’t fill out refugee status determination forms after January 1.
How can we in good conscience ship 20,000 asylum seekers like toxic human waste off to countries which offer a miserable existence, no protection and little hope for the future and then send them to prison indefinitely if they refuse to leave voluntarily? During Passover, the Jewish people’s freedom festival, when we sing, “Let My People Go!,” let us also demand that our government let the African asylum seekers go. Not to unsafe African countries nor prison, but to work, to learn, contribute to our economy and be a bridge to Africa. Let freedom reign, for them as well as for us.
The author is a Jerusalem-based international consultant specializing in democracy and development issues in Africa.
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