What Awaits African Migrants in Israel, Set to Be Deported to Uganda?

Rebel groups, an increasingly autocratic president and human rights abuses are part of the reality in the central African country.

Yishai Halper
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Yishai Halper

The Israeli government intends to deport tens of thousands of East African migrants in Israel to Uganda after September's Sukkot holiday, although the details of the plan have not been released. So what awaits migrants upon their return to Africa?

Here's some background:

Back during the beginning of the 20th century, there were some individuals in Britain who proposed that Uganda become homeland for the world's persecuted Jews. That "Uganda program" is one of the initial associations that comes to when Israelis think of the central African country.

Another, more recent association is Operation Entebbe, the 1976 Israeli mission to rescue hostages aboard an Air France flight from Tel Aviv, hijacked en route Paris and diverted to Uganda. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's brother Yonatan was killed in the rescue effort. Many Israelis recall the admiration and subsequent hatred that Uganda's dictator at the time, Idi Amin, had for Israel.

And then there is last year's "Kony 2012" graffiti, which still graces some locations in Tel Aviv, in a faded expression of support for a worldwide campaign led by an American film director against Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony.

But Uganda, unlike other conflict areas throughout the world, has the reputation as an economically and politically stable country, certainly when compared to other African states such as Somalia, Mali and Zimbabwe. It was Uganda that launched a campaign against the spread of AIDS (which had affected about a third of the Ugandan population in the 1990s), reduced poverty and now has the prospect of reaping the benefit of oil reserves recently discovered in the country.

But if tens of thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean migrants to Israel are indeed airlifted to Uganda, the reality that they face could be totally different. The country's western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo is still afflicted by rebel activity. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has been buttressing the autocratic nature of his regime. Human rights are systematically and even ruthlessly violated.

So the question is whether Uganda's political stability and relative economic prosperity have not been achieved at the expense of individual liberties and human rights. For his part, the comments of Arye Oded, who was a member of Israel's diplomatic mission to Uganda and Malawi and served as ambassador to Kenya, Zambia, Mauritius and other countries in the region, commented on the moral ambiguity of the current situation in Uganda. "In most of the country, the situation is stable," he told Haaretz. "Uganda is a stable country, but not when it comes to the regime."

It was Oded who was in charge of renewing diplomatic relations after the end of Idi Amin's rule. The diplomat is currently a researcher at the Abba Eban Center for Israeli Diplomacy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A former British colony, Uganda gained its independence in 1962. Over the following decades, about half a million people were killed in Uganda by the government, control over which shifted between Idi Amin and Milton Obote. The country also played an active role in the war that took place in Congo between 1998 and 2003, which created lasting tension between the two countries, and which continues to spark border conflicts to this day. In July of this year, about 60,000 Congolese refugees fled Congo for Uganda, according to reporting by the Associated Press, and humanitarian aid organizations have told the news agency that they are not prepared to cope with such a large influx of refugees.

Uganda is facing two major rebel groups: Joseph Kony's group, the Lord's Resistance Army, and the Allied Democratic Forces. According to the United Nations, the latter group, a Muslim militia, works in concert with the Somali Al-Shabab militia and was responsible for the recent flood of refugees from Congo. Still, it appears that the primary threat to freedom for Uganda's citizens is President Museveni.

"Museveni, 69, has ruled the country for 27 years, six fewer than [President Robert] Mugabe in Zimbabwe," Patience Akumu, a reporter for Britain's Observer newspaper in Uganda, wrote in the U.K. daily the Guardian recently. "But while the world recognizes Mugabe as a dictator, Museveni is still, to them, the same blue-eyed boy who was once feted as the ideal of democracy and transformation in Africa."

And the Museveni regime appears to be increasingly acting with an iron fist. In early August, three UN experts called on the Ugandan government to nullify new proposed legislation that would ban the assembly of more than three people. In May, the Ugandan police raided the editorial offices of two local newspapers for reporting that Museveni had designated his son as his successor. The authorities also shut down two radio stations.

The persecution of homosexuals in the country made headlines a few years ago when legislation was proposed that would impose the death penalty or life in prison on "serial [homosexual] offenders." Same-sex sexual contact has been against the law in Uganda since 2009, a law that has the president's support, and in 2011, an activist from the gay and lesbian community there, David Kato, was murdered.

When Oded, the former Israeli diplomat, was asked if Israel could be confident that the African migrants that are to be sent to Uganda are being deported to a safe place, he said that is indeed the case. From the standpoint of internal security, he said, he does not foresee a problem. But Oded added that, with respect to Museveni, who had been a patriot, "a man on the straight and narrow, who rebuilt the country after Amin had almost totally destroyed it," he has since changed. "This regime," Oded said, "is not democratic."

A Congolese refugee camp in UgandaCredit: Reuters

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