Israel Is Sending Asylum Seekers to Rwanda Without Status, Rights

Testimonies reveal grim reality behind Israel's 'voluntary departure' plan.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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Asylum seekers register with immigration police in Ben Gurion Airport as part of 'voluntary' deportation.
Asylum seekers register with immigration police in Ben Gurion Airport as part of 'voluntary' deportation.
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

Israel is flying asylum seekers who’ve agreed to “voluntary departure” to Rwanda, as well as Uganda, according to testimony obtained by Haaretz.

Asylum seekers have no arranged status in these countries, are not granted basic rights and, for the most part, they do not have any official documents or permits, the testimonies indicate.

They also say that they have no contact with any official representatives from Israel or the country to which they were sent after their arrival, and no one assists them or deals with their needs.

One testimony is from V., an Eritrean who flew from Israel to Rwanda last month with several other Eritrean asylum seekers. In a phone call with Sigal Rosen, founder of a hotline for foreign workers (now Hamoked for refugees and migrants,) he said that Israel equipped him with a transit document and that when he arrived in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, he was given a 10-day tourist visa. Aside from that, he had no other identifying document or permit attesting to his status or rights.

V. says that when he arrived in Rwanda he was taken to a hotel in Kigali and that Israel paid for a three-day stay. At the hotel he had to hand over his transit document and did not get it back. “Now I have no ID and no way to obtain one, though I don’t think it’s a problem here in Rwanda. A lot of people don’t have IDs. I don’t think I have any way of obtaining legal status here beyond the 10 days of the tourist visa,” he told Rosen.

He said he doesn’t regret his decision to leave Israel, but that he cannot stay in Rwanda. It’s a “nice, quiet” country, he says, but there is no way he could find work and earn a living.

“We all received $3,500 before we left, but we have to get to another country because it’s impossible to find work in this country. When the money runs out we’ll have nothing to live on, but it’s still better than the prison in Israel.”

He adds that he heard on an Eritrean radio station that nine Eritreans who were sent to Rwanda were arrested, but he’s sure this report is not accurate. He says the Eritreans in Kigali know the people who are coming from Israel and that they haven’t been arrested.

Rosen suggested that V., who expressed a willingness to go to Uganda, contact HIAS in Kampala, which assists refugees, but he declined. “Nobody in Uganda can know that I was in Israel,” he told her. “Eritreans who went to Uganda say that you have to hide that. Since I’m coming from Rwanda and not straight from Israel, It will be easier for me to hide the fact that I was in Israel,” he explained.

His friend, who’s been living in Kigali for a few years, said this week that due to various difficulties, V. eventually decided to head for South Sudan. Efforts to contact him or his family in recent days were unsuccessful.

Broken by prison

A couple of months ago, Sigal Avivi, a human rights activist with close ties to the asylum seekers, received a surprising phone call. “I’m in Rwanda,” said R., a Sudanese citizen who’d been in Saharonim prison and took part in the march of asylum seekers from the Holot detention center to Jerusalem. Like many others, he was arrested in the demonstration outside the Knesset and held at Saharonim for violating the conditions of his stay at Holot. He frequently called Avivi and told her he couldn’t keep going in prison.

“He just broke down and couldn’t go on,” she says. “The night before the return he told me, ‘That’s it, I signed, I’m going back,’ even though I told him it wasn’t worth it. A day or two later, he calls me and says he’s in Rwanda and is afraid he’ll be sent back to Sudan.”

At the time there were rumors about asylum seekers being flown to Uganda, but Rwanda hadn’t been mentioned. “I said, ‘You must mean Uganda.’ He said, ‘No, Rwanda.’ I was sure he was mistaken.”

“His mental state was not good,” says Avivi. She says R. regretted the decision and wanted to come back to Israel. “He asked what he could do and I told him I didn’t know. I told him to try to calm down. I told him that if he was staying in Rwanda he should call me the next day, but he hasn’t called since. I’ve tried to reach him at the phone number I have, but he doesn’t answer.” Haaretz’s efforts to contact R. were also unsuccessful.

The Prime Minister’s Office responded: “The Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu has completely halted the illegal infiltration into Israel and is determined to continue returning to their countries of origin the thousands of illegal migrant workers who have entered here. All actions are taken in accordance with international law.”

The Population and Immigration Authority said: “All the actions being taken in the fight against infiltration are being done legally.”

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, July 11, 2012Credit: AP

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