Asylum seekers who have left Israel for Uganda have entered that country without having received the necessary inoculation against life-threatening yellow fever, say dozens of reports that have reached Haaretz.
According to the office of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, entry without inoculation is against Ugandan law, and that the president’s office did not know of any asylum seekers entering the country illegally. These statements raise questions about the agreement by which asylum seekers have so far been sent to Uganda, and about the agreement now being explored by the government to deport asylum seekers to Uganda.
Haaretz has received reports that asylum seekers who left for Uganda in recent years under the “voluntary departure program,” were allowed into the country via the airport by an individual who let them in without the required checks. According to Ugandan law, any person entering the country legally must present a document proving that he or she has been inoculated against yellow fever.
“Four other asylum seekers and I got to Uganda together at the end of 2017 via Turkey,” a person identified as B. told Haaretz. “In the airport a woman met us and asked us whether we were from Israel. She told us to come aside with her, not in the regular lines where all the tourists go. She told us she was working with Israel and took our documents without checking them at all. We have not yet received our documents back. Tourists from Germany who were with us on the plane got in after they received a yellow card showing they had been inoculated. We received nothing. In Israel we were not inoculated and no one spoke to us about this. They told me that it’s a dangerous sickness and everyone coming to Uganda has to be inoculated. I would have demanded to get a shot before I left Israel if I had known.”
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Haaretz gathered the information for this report in cooperation with the Swedish-Eritrean journalist Marun Estafanous, who interviewed 52 asylum seekers who went from Israel to Uganda, and another 14 asylum seekers after they left Uganda for Sweden.
Haaretz received a harsh written response to this report from the Ugandan president’s office, which indicates that by taking this action, Israel had breached the country’s law. “The law requires that you must have a yellow fever card to prove vaccination or get vaccinated at the port of entry. It is highly risky to enter Uganda without vaccination. The Ministry of Health has centers at entry points for vaccination for legal entries.”
When asked whether the president’s office knew that asylum seekers who came from Israel to Uganda in recent years had entered the country without being inoculated against yellow fever, the official responded: “We are not aware of any illegal asylum seekers.”
Yellow fever is a viral disease passed by mosquitos that can be deadly. Israel’s Foreign Ministry website notes specifically that yellow fever inoculation is required for people seeking to travel to “a number of countries in Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and others),” which are not infected with yellow fever, and for which there is no Israeli Health Ministry recommendation for inoculation.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry says local authorities in these countries will demand to see proof of inoculation “to prevent a future outbreak of the disease” in those countries. The Health Ministry website notes that the disease can damage the liver and the kidneys and can be fatal.
Another asylum seeker who was sent to Uganda, identified as R., also said he had not been inoculated and that upon arrival in the airport in Uganda he and his party were taken to another line. He believes that if Ugandan law requires a yellow fever shot, “then clearly we were brought in illegally.”
According to J., who left Israel in 2015, the inoculation bothered him less than other processes he had to go through when he was brought to Uganda. “I didn’t care that I didn’t get the shot. I cared that my documents were taken and not returned, and because there’s no work in Uganda. Clearly what Israel promised us, that we’d have safe haven and work, is a lie. There’s nothing here.”
H., an asylum seeker deported from Israel to Uganda a year ago, said he has no idea what inoculation had been needed. “I had no inoculation in Israel. I said I wanted to leave, two weeks went by and they put me on a plane. That’s it. They wanted to kick me out as fast as possible.”
More than 4,000 asylum seekers have left Israel for Uganda and Rwanda since 2013 through the “voluntary departure program” operated by the Population, Immigration and Border Authority. Since January, more than 450 have left. Last week the state informed the High Court of Justice that after the agreement fell through to forcibly deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, Israel would likely deport all asylum seekers to Uganda – which was not officially mentioned by name – and a special envoy was sent to check the feasibility.
“There’s no doubt that technically there’s no way to enter Uganda without showing an inoculation card against yellow fever. The first representative whom people entering Uganda meet is from the Health Authority and his job is to check the inoculation certificate. This is done before passport control, and whoever doesn’t have this authorization is barred from entering,” says Dr. Rami Gudovitz, a lecturer in philosophy and head of the educational project Come True, which educates the children of South Sudanese asylum seekers in Uganda who were deported from Israel.
The Swedish-Eritrean journalist Estafanous said she was in Uganda for two weeks, filming for Swedish television, and she met a young Eritrean man who had been deported from Israel. She said they started talking and he told her he hadn’t gotten any inoculation, and that no one in Israel told him about it. Her curiosity piqued, Estafanous said she started looking for people who had been sent to Uganda from Israel. They all told her the same story, she said: None of the 52 people with whom she spoke had been inoculated in Israel and none had a yellow card.
They told her a woman met them in the airport and took all their Israeli documents and then showed them to an Eritrean hotel owner at the airport. They all left the airport by a back door and not through the arrivals hall like everyone else.
Estafanous said that since returning to Sweden, she began to ask questions there of Eritreans who had been deported from Israel to Uganda. She interviewed 14 men and heard similar reports from them. She noted how strict the Ugandans are about yellow fever inoculations, and added that it made her question what kind of a deal Israel and Uganda made. She added that Uganda should be furious, because this would mean it has put its citizens in danger.
The Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem did not respond for this report. The Health Ministry said: “According to the health authorities in Uganda, no yellow fever inoculation is required of people reaching Uganda on direct flights from Israel.”