The secret agreement between the governments of Israel and Uganda over the deportation of African migrants to Uganda is not surprising considering the warm relations between the two countries in the seventeen years since Yoweri Museveni came to power. Museveni’s government has maintained close ties with Israel and has signed numerous deals for weapons systems, agricultural technology and medical assistance.
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One of the key figures in the relationship has been Rafi Eitan, a former Mossad official, who was also the leader of the now-defunct Pensioners Party and a minister in the Olmert government. Eitan has business interests in Uganda and he is a confidante of Museveni. He accompanied the Ugandan president on his two visits to Israel. Uganda was a also destination for senior Israeli representatives in recent years, including former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his deputy Danny Ayalon. Israel does not have an embassy in Kampala and its diplomatic affairs in Uganda are managed by the Israeli embassy in Kenya. “Uganda is an important partner of Israel in Africa but not a strategic ally like Ethiopia or Eritrea which are situated on smuggling routes of Iranian arms,” an Israeli diplomatic official said.
The Ugandan military, which has been involved in the fighting in Rwanda, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in its own northern provinces against rebels, has received significant Israeli military aid. According to foreign media reports, Israeli weapons supplies have included self-propelled cannons and mortars, artillery shells, surveillance systems, modernization of its ageing MiG-21 fighter jets and the training of its pilots in Israel. There have also been reports of supplies of Israeli drones to Uganda.
In addition, a number of Israeli firms are active in the country, mainly in the fields of agricultural technology. The Foreign Ministry’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV) carries out programs in various fields such as assistance to the public health system.
The local media in Uganda has not yet reported on the refugee deal with Israel. Dismas Nkunda, a journalist and human rights activist who focuses on refugee issues told Haaretz that he had heard rumors. But when he asked the national refugee agency, he was told they were not aware of any agreement. “The agreement was probably done by another government agency dealing with foreign relations,” he said. “It is clearly in return for business relations and the extensive weapons deals between Israel and Uganda. There is very close cooperation between the two countries. It isn’t surprising that the refugees agency hasn’t been updated.”
Around a quarter of a million refugees currently live in Uganda, mainly Rwandans, Sudanese and Congolese. Most recent arrivals have fled the fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The migrants from Israel will most likely be sent to the camps run by the United Nations Refugee Agency. “There are terrible conditions in these places,” says Nkunda. “They are basically large prisons and the refugees are not allowed out without permission from the authorities. We call them ‘warehouses for human beings.’”
Nkunda says that “the human rights organizations here have not yet begun to prepare for the arrival of refugees from Israel but when we receive confirmation, we will lodge our protest. This is a clear infringement on their human rights. These people did not choose to travel to Uganda, there is a clear reason why they sought asylum in Israel.”
Uganda holds periodic elections (which Museweri wins by a landslide) but the country is routinely criticized by human rights organizations for the control of the media, the limits put on opposition parties, persecution of minorities and homosexuals and the endemic violence of police and security forces.