Israeli Program in Which Asylum Seekers Willingly Leave for Rwanda Is Frozen

Thousands of Africans from Eritrea and Sudan had been sent to the country, but many soon fled for neighboring Uganda – which is now the only state accepting asylum seekers from Israel

Eritrean migrants demonstrating outside the Knesset against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda, January 17, 2018. The Hebrew signs read, "No for deportation, Rwanda equal to death" and "Slaves for sale."
Oded Balilty /AP

The voluntary exit program that has sent hundreds, possibly thousands, of African asylum seekers to Rwanda from Israel since 2014 has been frozen, Haaretz has learned.

At the end of March, Rwanda refused to take asylum seekers who were forcibly deported from Israel. But it wasn’t clear whether the agreement to take asylum seekers who left willingly had also collapsed.

When approached by Haaretz, the Population and Immigration Authority refused to say when the voluntary exits to Rwanda had stopped or why. However, it confirmed that “As of now, there are voluntary exits to only one of the two ‘third countries’” that had been party to the exit agreement with Israel.

Until now, the state was suggesting to African asylum seekers – who are predominantly from Sudan or Eritrea – that they leave Israel for Uganda or Rwanda. There are also some Western countries accepting asylum seekers from Israel, either through family reunification procedures or special requests by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

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In April 2015, Haaretz revealed that, in addition to Uganda, Israel had started sending African asylum seekers to Rwanda. Both countries leave the migrants without any official status or basic rights.

While Israel does not force the asylum seekers to leave, it exerts pressure on them to do so – including with the offer of a $3,500 grant. Almost all of those who went to Rwanda left within a few days, most going on to Uganda with the help of smugglers.

In 2016 and 2017, 1,136 people left for Uganda and 374 to Rwanda. In the years 2014 and 2015, 2,600 people left for the two countries. Between January and May this year, 195 people left for a “third country.” However, it is not clear whether it was only Uganda or whether there were those still going to Rwanda.

In April, the state told the High Court of Justice that after it had signed agreements with Uganda and Rwanda to also accept forced deportees, the two agreements had collapsed.

At the end of March, just before the deportations were meant to start on April 1, it emerged that “officials in the first of the third countries [Rwanda] said they see the voluntary arrival of infiltrators into their country in a manner that doesn’t square with the updated signed agreement. After a period of the agreement’s gradual erosion, these officials understood that it would not be possible now to implement the updated agreement with the first of the third countries regarding involuntary exit,” the state told the High Court on April 24.

During a press conference in early April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would work to establish a parliamentary committee of inquiry into the work of the New Israel Fund, claiming it was the NIF that had led the Rwandan government to withdraw from the agreement to accept deported asylum seekers.

“The primary element that exerted European pressure on the Rwandan government to withdraw from the agreement to remove infiltrators from Israel is the New Israel Fund,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.

Sigal Rozen of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrant said, “We are pleased to learn that the Population and Immigration Authority has stopped deceiving refugees and leading them to believe they will get legal status in Rwanda. We regret that there are still refugees being sent to Uganda who believe the authority’s representatives, who tell them they will get legal status there.”

In January, Rwanda denied it had signed any secret agreement with Israel to accept African asylum seekers and said its doors were open to anyone coming to its border voluntarily, without coercion.

“In reference to the rumors that have been recently spread in the media, the Government of Rwanda wishes to inform that it has never signed any secret deal with Israel regarding the relocation of African migrants,” the government tweeted, following a demonstration by asylum seekers from Eritrea outside the Rwandan Embassy in Herzliya. In the past, Rwandan government officials had confirmed there was an agreement with Israel but never offered details about it.

In an interview with Haaretz in April 2017, Rwandan President Paul Kagame said of the agreement: “I think it’s a complicated issue. I decided to just leave it the way it is. We agreed to play a role in order to help not only Israel but also the people concerned, trying to stop this from becoming a much bigger problem.”

With regard to Rwanda’s interest in the agreement, he said, “Most of all, the strength of the relationship we have with Israel. It’s really limited to that. If I went to Israel and said ‘Can you help us? There’s a problem we have,’ I’m sure there are many things Israel would be willing to do to help us.”

Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said last year that her government was prepared to take around 10,000 African asylum seekers from Israel. But although Netanyahu announced last September that the agreement with Rwanda had been amended, two months later Mushikiwabo said the countries hadn’t yet come to a final agreement, that negotiations were continuing and that they were dealing, among other things, with the responsibility for the refugees’ welfare in the absorbing country. “If they are comfortable to come here, we would be willing to accommodate them,” she told Rwandan newspaper New Times.