KAMPALA, Uganda – It’s around noon in Uganda’s capital Kampala. The streets are bustling and traffic is heavy. Meles looks out of place, and he certainly feels it. “I don’t have a future here,” he tells Haaretz. “I have no hope, no job. My life is ruined.”
He’s a relative newcomer here. He has been here for around two and a half months and says it’s just a matter of time until he’s on the road again. “I’m already 31 and prefer to try my luck elsewhere rather than live this way, God willing,” he says, pointing upward and not at the two crosses on his chest. “This time I’ll be lucky.”
The last time he tried his luck nearly a decade ago he deserted his unlimited military service in the Eritrean army and started walking north. Ultimately he reached Israel, where he lived for more than seven and a half years, from the beginning of 2010 until last November. Then he was forced to “leave voluntarily.”
In addition to the threat of prison if he didn’t leave, there was the $3,500 that Israel gave and the laissez-passer document, ensuring him legal status in a third country and the right to work. There were also verbal assurances that things would be all right – that he’d be able to make a living and integrate into his new country.
Soon after Meles landed at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport, he discovered there wasn’t much substance to the assurances, not even a way to contact the government clerk who sent him there. And regarding the documents, someone in Uganda was there to take them away from him as soon as he landed.
Haaretz has heard this story repeatedly from former asylum seekers in Israel who went to Rwanda (and from there took a circuitous path to neighboring Uganda), and from those whose airplane ticket took them straight to Entebbe. Haaretz met with more than 15 of them in Kampala and spoke with several others by phone. No Israeli official contacted them once they had left Israel, or took any interest in them once they had reached Africa.
Meles has no documents and no job, and has no status in Uganda letting him work. He has spent some of the $3,500, and it looks like the rest will be gone soon. He regrets that he didn’t opt for the Holot detention center in the south.
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“It would be better to be in jail in Israel, where at least I would get food,” he says, adding that he advises asylum seekers still in Israel not to accept the offer of passage to a third country.
Meles’ Hebrew is excellent, an indication that he adjusted well during his seven and a half years in Israel. He worked three years for one employer and four years for another, the owner of a grocery store near Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market. From the very beginning he tried to obtain legal status in Israel.
When he arrived at the Saharonim detention facility in 2010, he gave details about his travails. He repeated them a month later when he left Saharonim and was granted a temporary visa. And he repeated them five years later when he submitted an asylum request. Like many others, he never received an answer on his request, but around that time he was told that his residence visa would not be renewed.
At that point he received two options – go to the Holot detention center in the Negev (“Come tomorrow with your suitcase”) or go to “a third country,” though which country it wasn’t made clear. His employer offered another option – continue working for him – but he cautioned: “Don’t be out and about too much.” Meles took up the employer’s offer until a few months ago, when his boss told him he could no longer help him.“The laws are changing,” the employer said. “I’m afraid it will cause me problems.”
Meles unsuccessfully sought other work for a month and then made up his mind. “I told myself I wasn’t going to Holot,” he says. He opted for the third country and was told that it would be Uganda. Two and a half months later, Meles was speaking to Haaretz in the middle of Kampala.
When he and three other asylum seekers who had been living in Israel landed in Uganda, they were met by a local woman. “She asked us if we had come from Israel and she took us with her,” Meles says. “She said she was working with Israel. We wanted to get a visa that would confirm our documents. She said it wasn’t necessary, that we were coming with her and she would have our documents.”
‘Lucky’ to be South Sudanese
That was the last time anyone mentioned Israel, and the last time Meles saw his documents. The new arrivals were taken to a hotel in Kampala and three days later were told by the owner they had to leave – this was the period the rooms had been paid for. They had no friends or relatives in the country and didn’t even have a common language with the locals.
They were left to fend for themselves and Israel had cut off all contact with them. It was suggested that they contact the United Nations and claim that they came from South Sudan, where a civil war has been raging, and not mention that they came from Israel.
After all, Uganda is considered a paradise for refugees compared to the rest of Africa. “Uganda’s refugee-hosting model is one of the most progressive in the world,” Amnesty International says on its website. “However, Uganda’s generous policy towards refugees is under threat, as thousands of new refugees arrive each day while its refugee appeal is chronically underfunded.”
Since the outbreak of South Sudan’s civil war, Uganda has hosted one of the world’s largest refugee populations, topping 1 million last August. About 285,000 of them live in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp near the South Sudanese border. Conditions aren’t bad, relatively speaking. There are kindergartens and schools, and the refugees are permitted to work, move around and even receive a small plot of land.
But not asylum seekers coming from Israel. They’re not recognized as refugees and they no longer have papers. They won’t be admitted to the refugee camp and probably won’t find work.
Meles tells about university graduates cleaning rooms at the Kampala hotel where he was staying, and since he isn’t Ugandan, his prospects of finding work would be lower. For the time being, he’s sufficing with the money he received when he left Israel. But Uganda is more expensive than Rwanda and he’s spending $450 a month there. His expenses include money for a container of water, as there’s no running water in his neighborhood.
Near the Gadhafi Mosque in central Kampala, a café owned by a man I’ll call Matheus has become a pilgrimage site for Eritrean asylum seekers from Israel. The café shows Eritrean television, and all told the atmosphere is reminiscent of Eritrea, or at least south Tel Aviv, where many Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel live.
Matheus didn’t come to Uganda from Israel but rather directly from Eritrea. He estimates that Kampala is now home to 250 to 300 Eritreans who have been expelled from Israel. Most try to make their way north because Uganda, as he puts it, is a very tough country.
Sitting around a plate of Eritrean food, a group of Eritreans who left Israel tell their stories. One of them, I’ll call him Dawit, is nearly 30 and spent seven years in Israel until receiving an ultimatum to leave at the end of 2015. He opted for Rwanda and the better life that Israeli authorities promised him, rather than Holot.
As at Entebbe, Dawit was received at the airport in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, and his documents were taken from him. His story is familiar: He was sent to a house for three days and was pressured to move to Uganda, where he was told that things were better. He says he paid $150 to be taken, along with several friends, from Kigali to the Ugandan border, but after crossing the border they were detained by the Ugandan police.
“They put us in jail and beat us,” Dawit says in Hebrew, also showing a scar on his arm, a souvenir from his time in jail. “They took everything from us, all our money, and after they let us out of jail, one of them gave me $100,” Dawit adds, smiling bitterly. That was all that had remained of his departure grant from Israel, and he had to pay it to someone to take him to Kampala.
And there has been another problem: Two people who left for Uganda say they received a document from a man who identified himself as a representative of Israel. The document, purportedly from the Ugandan immigration authorities, ostensibly allows its bearer to cross the Ugandan border into a neighboring country; Kenya, for example.
Ugandan immigration authorities deny that they have issued such documents. The agreement reached between Israel and Uganda is confidential, but it doesn’t appear that the Ugandan authorities would have any reason to issue such papers. In any event, the information contained in one document given to someone who left Israel inaccurately stated that he was born in Uganda, even though he was born in Eritrea. His date of birth was also wrong.
For its part, Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority said: “A portion of the arrangement is that those leaving [Israel] voluntarily receive documents permitting their stay in the third country.”
Dawit has been in Kampala for two years, living hand to mouth, in part from money from friends and relatives. He says Ugandan and UN officials have told him that it’s “not good” if they came from Israel, though he’s trying to obtain the right to work in Uganda. “It’s too dangerous to go to Sudan, to Libya and then via the Mediterranean [to Europe], but they say I can’t work here,” he says. “It’s a pity I didn’t stay in Israel, even at Holot.”
It’s hard to establish the numbers involved, but a large number of those who have left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda have tried to head north. For each person staying in Kampala, several others have decided to risk their lives for a better future elsewhere.
Last week the International Organization for Migration published data on migrants from Africa who have ventured the dangerous trip to Europe by sea. Of the 1,184 people who made the attempt in January, the largest group of nationals was Eritreans. It’s impossible to know if former asylum seekers from Israel were among them, but it’s reasonable to assume that there were. On average, one out of 22 who attempt the journey die at sea. It’s impossible to know how many others die en route to the North African coast.
I’ll call Ariam one of those not afraid of the journey. The 30-year-old spent six years in Israel before leaving for Rwanda about a year ago. From there he took the familiar route to Kampala. He has decided to make the trip to Europe, where he has friends. He also has relatives in Canada. He acknowledges the perils of the trip through Sudan and Libya and the threat posed by the Islamic State. “They say it’s worse than Sinai, but I’m not staying here,” he says.
On paper, at least, arrivals in Uganda can apply for status through the prime minister’s office. Applicants receive temporary visas that have to be renewed every two months. Eritreans don’t receive refugee status in Uganda, something valuable for being allowed to remain in the country.
But this doesn’t give recipients the right to work. “Renewing a visa requires paying off a clerk or policeman,” says someone I’ll call Dalak. “We can’t say we came from Israel, because we’ll be considered rich. If the clerk knows this, he’ll want a lot of money. At least in Israel there’s no bribery.”
The accounts of people with whom Haaretz spoke help show that Israel isn’t sticking to its promises and is sending people to the unknown, great hardship and sometimes even the risk of death.
Meles has heard about the demonstrations in Israel opposing the expulsion of asylum seekers. “You can see that I have a thorn in my side, but you can’t feel the pain,” he says. “It’s impossible to understand what we’re going through, but there are a lot of good people in Israel. Israelis are a terrific nation. Most understand what a human being is. It’s just the government that I don’t understand.”
Less than three months after arriving in Uganda, Meles intends to uproot himself again, this time for Europe. If he makes it there, he says, “finally I’ll be able to start my life. I need to get married, to start a family.”
But there’s the risk that he’ll drown in the Mediterranean, be jailed in Sudan or be killed by the Islamic State in Libya. The fact that he’s Christian increases the risk. Even if he turns out lucky, other asylum seekers who leave Israel for Africa and then decide to go to Europe may not be as fortunate.