Protesters at the Holot Detention Center, February 17, 2014
Protesters at the Holot Detention Center, February 17, 2014. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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Israel has begun to send African asylum seekers to Uganda, according to a senior government official who said that over the past month, dozens of asylum seekers have agreed to leave Israel for Uganda, and some have already left. The Population and Immigration Authority declined several requests from Haaretz to respond on the matter and no other official confirmation was forthcoming.

Haaretz has obtained information that a Sudanese citizen who had been detained at the Saharonim detention center flew to Uganda, where he was reunited with his family. The man called his friends in Israel and said there were six other asylum seekers from Sudan with him on the flight, all of whom had been released from Saharonim. The man also said he had received a grant of $3,500 for leaving the country, which is in keeping with the government’s “voluntary departure” procedure.

The state does not deport citizens of Eritrea because of danger to their lives in that country, nor does it deport the Sudanese, because Israel has no diplomatic relations with Sudan. But it does exert heavy pressure on people from those countries to leave.

In June of 2013, the state told the High Court of Justice that it had reached an arrangement with a third country that would agree to accept asylum seekers from Africa, but would not reveal the name of the country. Senior officials confirmed that the country was Uganda; however, the state would not discuss the agreement and the Ugandan government denied the existence of such an agreement.

Asylum seekers incarcerated at Saharonim or at the Holot detention facility say representatives of the Population and Immigration Authority are pressuring them to sign “voluntary departure” forms and are specifically mentioning the possibility of moving to Uganda. “Somebody from the Interior Ministry is going around here and asking if anyone wants to go back,” a detainee at Holot said on Wednesday. The detainee said the harsh conditions at the facility and the pressure are leading some people to agree to leave Israel despite their fears.

“The State of Israel is proposing to asylum seekers a return to Uganda with no assurances or official agreement,” Reut Michaeli, director of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, said on Wednesday. She added that as far as her organization knows, the asylum seekers will not receive legal status in Uganda and they will not have any papers allowing them to leave if they want to.

“In addition to all that, it is known that Uganda deports asylum seekers to their countries of origin,” Michaeli pointed out.

MK Michal Rozin (Meretz), chairwoman of the Knesset Foreign Workers Committee, said: “How can it be that six months ago the interior minister announced with great fanfare, ‘Look, we have an agreement with a third country and now we can move thousands there,’ and now suddenly we hear testimony about the voluntary move of asylum seekers to Uganda without an agreement.”

Rozin, who said the secrecy made it look like an agreement that the government did not want to show the public, asked Sa’ar for clarifications, but he has not yet responded.

Meanwhile, Sa’ar said there has been a sharp rise in the number of asylum seekers from Africa leaving the country under what is known as the voluntary departure procedure. Speaking at the “voluntary departure unit” that the Population and Immigration Authority recently opened in Eilat, Sa’ar said that this month some 1,500 asylum seekers would be leaving, as opposed to 765 in January, 325 in December and 63 in November.

“The number of people leaving every month recalls the number of infiltrators who were coming in at the height of the illegal infiltration,” Sa’ar said. He added that the sharp rise in departures was due to the new law against illegal entry, summonses to the Holot detention facility, the prohibition against employing illegal migrants and increasing the grant the asylum seekers receive on departure from $1,500 to $3,500. He said the figures were encouraging the ministry to continue its policy.

According to the Population and Immigration Authority, as of September 2013 there were 53,646 asylum seekers from Africa in Israel, among them 35,987 Eritreans, 13,249 Sudanese and 4,400 people from other countries.

According to the cabinet decision, all asylum seekers from Africa who leave the country by the end of the month via the “voluntary departure” procedure will receive a $3,500 grant.

The Population and Immigration Authority reported on Wednesday that two Sudanese citizens crossed the border at night from Egypt to Israel. Since the beginning of 2014, 12 Africans have crossed into Israel. All have been incarcerated for one year in Saharonim, in keeping with the amendment to the law on illegal entry to Israel. On April 1 the High Court of Justice is to hear a petition by human rights groups against the amendment allowing asylum seekers to be jailed at Saharonim and establishing the Holot facility.

The number of African asylum seekers leaving the country under what is known as the voluntary departure procedure continues to grow exponentially from month to month, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said on Wednesday. Sa’ar, who was visiting the “voluntary departure unit” that the Population and Immigration Authority recently opened in Eilat, projected that this month some 1,500 asylum seekers would be leaving, compared to 765 in January, 325 in December and 63 in November. Sa’ar said 700 asylum seekers have left the country since the beginning of this month.

Meanwhile, hundreds of asylum seekers have begun a protest march from the Holot detention center in the desert to Tel Aviv. They are calling for the release of all the detainees and asking that their asylum applications be processed.

“The number of people leaving every month recalls the number of infiltrators who were coming in at the height of the illegal infiltration,” Sa’ar said. He added that the sharp rise in departures was due to the new law against infiltration, summonses to Holot, the prohibition against employing illegal migrants and increasing the grant the asylum seekers receive on departure from $1,500 to $3,500. The figures were encouraging the ministry to continue its actions, the minister said.

Human rights groups say the state’s actions go against international refugee conventions. “The Interior Ministry’s continued boasting about this behavior by a democratic country - a signatory to the international refugee convention - is shameful,” the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants said in a statement. “’Voluntary’ departure’ is the result of heavy and illegal psychological pressure on detained, isolated and desperate asylum seekers, which more than once has included threats and lies,” the statement added.

According to the Population and Immigration Authority, as of September 2013 there were 53,646 asylum seekers from Africa in Israel, among them 35,987 Eritreans, 13,249 Sudanese and 4,400 people from other countries. The state does not deport citizens of Eritrea because of the dangers facing them in that country, nor does it deport the Sudanese, because Israel has no diplomatic relations with Sudan. But it does exert heavy pressure on people from those countries to leave.

According to the cabinet decision, all asylum seekers from Africa who leave the country by the end of the month via the “voluntary departure” procedure will receive a $3,500 grant.

The asylum seekers says many have lost hope of a better future in Israel and are afraid of being locked up or ordered to stay at Holot for an open-ended period. So despite their fears of what awaits them in their home countries, they agree to sign the “voluntary departure” form.

Many of those leaving by this procedure are apparently detainees at the Saharonim detention center or have been required to stay at Holot.

The position of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees is that people cannot be considered to be acting of their own free will if the choice they have is between detention and being sent back to their country, where their lives could be in danger.