Gag Order Lifted

Uganda Will Take in Thousands of Israel's African Migrants

Until now, the identity of the East African nation was not made public; Human rights groups in Israel say that plan is in violation of UN policy; senior Ugandan official denies the agreement.

The East African nation that will take in tens of thousands of African migrants living in Israel is Uganda, it was revealed after a gag order was lifted Thursday in response to a request by Haaretz. The state, however, refuses to reveal any details of the agreement.

Sources say Israel will fund the migrants’ flights to Uganda as well as their absorption there. Each migrant will also be given a sum of money, apparently $1,500, to take with him. It is not known what Israel promised to give Uganda in exchange for absorbing the migrants. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees was not involved in the talks between Israel and Uganda and does not know the details.

In an email from Kampala, a senior Ugandan official denied the existence of any such agreement, saying nothing had changed since the issue first came up several months ago.

“As a department and Ministry of Government handling refugees, we are not aware of such an agreement,” said David Apollo Kazungu, commissioner of the Ugandan Refugees Department, a division of that country’s Prime Minister’s Office. “It is fundamentally against the international principle of “non refoulment” and grant of asylum to thoses in need of it. [errors in the original].”

Non-refoulement, a key facet of refugee law, protects refugees from being returned to places where their lives or freedom could be threatened.

Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar told the Knesset Interior Committee on Wednesday that migrants who had entered the country illegally would be transferred to a third country in an operation due to begin after the Sukkot holiday at the end of September. He noted that the state will define target groups,according to their year of entry into Israel,and tell them what the deadline is to leave the country voluntarily.

After that, he said, Israel will no longer renew their residency permits and will begin to enforce the laws against their employment, contrary to lenient policy in place until now, to which the government had committed itself before the High Court of Justice.

The Interior Ministry clarified that Eritrean and Sudanese nationals would not be deported from Israel against their will. However, once their residency permits have been cancelled, the state will be able to keep them in detention.

In recent years Israel has substantially improved its relations with Uganda; former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited there in 2009 and former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon was there last year. The focus of business ties between the two countries has been agricultural technology,but there have also been weapons transactions that, according to foreign reports, involved the supply of artillery and mortars, surveillance equipment, upgrading older fighter jets and probably the supply of unmanned aerial vehicles.

In addition, Israeli defense firms have trained Ugandan security forces in both Israel and Africa. Israel is also helping improve Uganda's health system.

Awat Ashbar, an Eritrean national who has been in Israel for six years, expressed disappointment with the agreement. “If Israel returns me to Uganda it’s like putting a knife to my gut,” he said. “Uganda will send us to Eritrea. We are very afraid.”

The Justice Ministry said Thursday that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein had approved the agreement with Uganda after receiving clarifications from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s special envoy, Haggai Hadas, and from the Foreign Ministry.

“The attorney general was convinced that there is no legal problem with the government acting in accordance with the outline obtained,” the ministry said in a statement. “This was after he determined, inter alia, that the third country is a party to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, that it has a system to receive refugees that provides sufficient protection to the relevant population, and that it meets the standards of the UN High Commission for Refugees.

The ministry also stressed that “at this point, the State of Israel is not expelling the nationals of North Sudan or Eritrea, and their return to their countries is solely voluntary.”

Refugee rights groups published a statement yesterday in which they expressed concern that Uganda might deport the asylum seekers to their countries of origin and questioned what status Uganda would grant them.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Hotline for Migrant Workers, Physicians for Human Rights, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (Assaf), and Amnesty International published a joint statement yesterday Thursday that questioned the credibility of the reports about an agreement with Uganda.

“For years, the Interior Ministry has spoken of an agreement with a third country to buy Israeli asylum seekers in exchange for weapons and money, and Uganda has been mentioned. But it turns out that Uganda is an unsafe country and there is no way to assure the safety of those who deported there. Last March, Israel expelled an Eritrean asylum-seeker to Uganda, which was quick to deny any agreement with it and expelled him immediately upon his arrival,” the groups said.

“The Interior Ministry isn’t clarifying exactly when the agreement goes into effect, how many people will be absorbed [by Uganda], what status they will receive and what guarantees there are that they won’t be deported to their countries of origin,” the statement continued. “The purpose of announcing some vague agreement with Uganda is to rekindle the debate about deportation to a third country in an effort to influence the High Court justices through the media, so they will not rule on a petition to cancel the anti-infiltration law. It is also meant to put pressure on the asylum-seekers in Israel, so that they will try to leave Israel immediately, any way they can, even at the risk of life and limb.”

The chairman of the Knesset Foreign Workers caucus, MK Michal Rosin, said that she has no objection in principle to the agreement, but that Israel must make sure Uganda does not return the immigrants to their home countries and will provide them with housing, employment and adequate social conditions.

“Transfer them to refugee camps in Uganda is not a proper solution,” she said. “There can be an operation, but it must be legal, in accordance with the refugee convention, and must accord people respect. They cannot be treated as if they are cattle that we’re loading up on trucks and taking away."

Rosin stressed that Israel must allow whoever wishes to apply for asylum to do, and to examine the request seriously.

Dr. Dvora Blum,director of the Institute for Immigration and Social Integration at the Ruppin Academic Center,called on the government to reveal the details of the agreement,at least with regard to the future of the African migrants.

“I would expect them to publicize the details of the agreement, and I'm not talking about which weapons Uganda will get, but at least what conditions Uganda undertakes to take care of these poor people,” she said.She added that the agreement must be subject to UN supervision.” 

Nir Keidar
Reuters