Officials: No Agreement With Uganda on Deporting African Migrants, Just Understandings

A deal was reached with Uganda, insist Israeli officials, but it will only apply to a few thousand out of the 55,000 Sudanese and Eritreans currently in Israel.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar's announcement that Uganda has agreed to take in African migrants now in Israel – a statement Uganda denies – may have been premature, but it was not completely unfounded, say Israeli government officials.

A senior Israeli government official said that at best, a verbal agreement had been reached in talks led by negotiator Hagai Hadas, but that nothing was on paper, not even an agreement in principle. Another government official said talks with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni about accepting some of Israel's migrants have been underway for a long time, but have yet to yield any practical results.

That is not likely to change before the end of the month at the earliest, he said.

"It's not over until the fat lady sings," the official said. "There are talks, but we won't be able to know before the end of September whether they are on track to come to fruition."

For a verbal agreement to be transformed into a signed bilateral treaty, it must meet the relevant legal standards and be announced publicly; both countries can be expected to want the deal to win public approval as well.

However, secret deals worked out between the Mossad and its counterpart intelligence agencies in other countries are not necessarily the most suitable instruments for transplanting thousands of people from one country to another.

Even if an agreement with Uganda is ratified, it's unclear how long it would take before it was implemented or how many to what extent it would reduce the number of African labor migrants in Israel, about 55,000 of whom come from Sudan and Eritrea. A senior government official said the number of migrants who would actually end up in Uganda might be only a few hundred or a few thousand at most.

The reason for the low numbers is that the Sudanese and Eritrean migrants who would agree to go to Uganda would not be headed for its capital, Kampala, but would be sent to farms or factories that would be set up by Israel. But these don't exist yet, and when they do, it's unclear if they will be able to provide suitable employment for tens of thousands of people.

Though Sa'ar did not mention Uganda by name in last week's announcement, he said Israel had signed an agreement with a third-party African country to take in migrants from Eritrea and Sudan, but both Israeli and Ugandan officials later said no such deal has been finalized.

It "is not true, it is unfounded, false and misleading that we have such an agreement,” Ugandan foreign affairs ministry spokesman Elly Kamahungye told the French news agency AFP last week.

Not only was the announcement premature, but it also removed the film of secrecy surrounding talks on the matter and pointed to Uganda as the unnamed country in question, after a gag order was lifted in response to a request by Haaretz.

One official said Sa'ar's statement was hyperbole, adding that the hype surrounding it has not benefited the prospect of continued talks with Uganda.

Ilan Lior contributed to this report.

Migrant workers from Africa at the Tel Aviv central bus station.Credit: Nir Keidar

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