Opinion |

Did Israel Make a Refugees-for-arms Deal With Uganda?

Despite this week's Ugandan media expose of an under-the-table refugee deportation agreement already challenged in Israel's Supreme Court, Kampala is still in denial. And the deportees, who sought safe haven in the Promised Land, face a bitter fate

James Tumusiime
James Tumusiime
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ISRAEL SENDS 1,400 REFUGEES TO UGANDACredit: Sunday Vision/Facebook
James Tumusiime
James Tumusiime

A leading Ugandan newspaper made a splash this week with the front page headline: "Israel sends 1,400 refugees to Uganda". The behind-the-scenes deal between Israel, Uganda and Rwanda has been exposed for some time in Israel, but Uganda officially continues to deny its existence. It’s therefore significant that Sunday Vision, a paper owned by the government, has publicized - and legitimized - the story.

The newspaper reported in its September 10 edition that it had interviewed ten refugees who said Israel had promised to resettle them in Uganda, only for them to have been abandoned and harassed by state agents in Kampala.

Read more: Israel Secretly Flying Asylum Seekers to Uganda | What Awaits African Migrants in Israel, Set to Be Deported to Uganda? | After Israel, African Kids Start Afresh in Uganda

"We were each promised that we would be given legal status once we landed at Entebbe. My other friends opted for Rwanda. Each one of us was given about $3,500, which they told us was an extra incentive at the departure lounge in Tel Aviv," Hebreges Tayes told the newspaper.

Israel and East Africa are thousands of miles apart, with little in common, but history has led to a series of intersections between them.

Around 1903, a slice of East Africa (the so-called "Uganda Plan") surprisingly emerged as a stop-gap homeland for persecuted Jews before present day Israel became the more obvious choice.

Then on July 4, 1976, Israeli Defence Forces' planes refuelled at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Kenya on their way to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where a daring raid ended in the rescue of mostly Israeli nationals whose Air France plane had been seized by Palestinian hijackers, backed by eccentric Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Read more: American Jews Outraged by Trump Must Not Forget Israel's Refugees | Israel Hires Anti-refugee Group to Research Situation in Eritrea | 'The North Korea of Africa': Where You Need a Permit to Have Dinner With Friends

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marked the 40th anniversary of the rescue when he visited Uganda and Kenya last year; his brother Yonatan,the operation's commander, lost his life in the raid.

But over the last three years or so, Israel's latest rapport with East Africa has raised eyebrows in the region and within the international community. This time, it's certainly not a story of heroism.

Afriacn migrants in the Saharonim detention facility.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

The latest intersection concerns an unpublished agreement to facilitate the deportation of African asylum seekers and refugees in Israel to "third countries" – namely, Uganda and Rwanda. Israel's estimated 38,000 asylum seekers are mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. Fleeing repression, they faced rape, torture and blackmail on their trek through the Sinai to Israel's southern border.

Persistent reports suggest that Kampala and Kigali are getting Israeli weapons, military training and other forms of aid in return, but just like their counterparts in Jerusalem, officials in both countries refuse to talk about any quid pro quo refugees-for-arms deal.

However, with NGOs and human rights activists going to court in Israel, which recently ruled that the deportations can go ahead but deportees who resist can't be held in detention for more than two months, the Israeli authorities have owned up more fully.

It took the lifting of a gag order in 2013 to first reveal the agreement in Israel. Rwanda acknowledged it in 2015 including the multi-million dollar monetary compensation involved.

But no such transparency exists in Uganda, so the government remains adamant there's no such agreement. Since Sunday's Vision expose, there has still not been an official government response.

Indeed, only last week, government spokesman Ofwono Opondo told me point-blank that there are no Eritreans and Sudanese arriving from Israel on Ugandan soil.

An African migrant cries amid a rally for asylum seekers' rights in Jerusalem, December 17, 2013. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

"We have cross-checked that information, even with Rwanda and our Immigration Department, we don't have those people," he said. "We don't know why they [Israelis] circulate that information, we don't have an agreement with them and we don't have Eritreans or Sudanese or any other nationality [here] on the basis of an agreement with the Israelis."

Mr Opondo further said that the Ugandan authorities had challenged the Israelis to produce the list of people they have sent to Uganda but got no response.

"Uganda is welcoming to refugees, so why would we hide these ones?" he queried.

Asked about an arms deal as the possible explanation for the secrecy, Mr Opondo retorted, "Do we need to buy arms secretly? We are not under an embargo, and if we want to purchase arms from Israel, it is not under an embargo either."

Of course, the arms business is legendary for its secrecy.

Uganda and Israel have a longstanding relationship based on military procurement, with Netanyahu playing a key role. A Haaretz journalist last year revealed that Netanyahu, while working as finance minister in 2005, visited Uganda with arms manufacturer Silver Shadow Systems. The trip was paid for by the Uganda government to the tune of $57,000.

With both Uganda and Rwanda led by former guerrilla leaders who today boast of two of Africa's most competent armies, it is difficult to see beyond arms as the main factor behind the East African countries' readiness to host Israel's "infiltrators", as its right-wing ministers are wont to call asylum-seekers.

Eritrean asylum seekers, who entered Israel illegally during the past years, hold placards showing their compatriots who they say were killed after being deported to Eritrea, during a protest against Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

If Uganda, for instance, was taking them in on humanitarian grounds, rather than deny it, government officials would have made it a point to trumpet the gesture and invoke the spirit of pan-Africanism, just as it has done with theone million or so South Sudan refugees in the north of the country.

But with the Sunday Vision expose, which nevertheless incorporates more denial by government officials, there's nowhere to hide any more. According to Sunday Vision, the refugees live in a "stateless limbo" in Kampala while those who get fed up are tempted to make illegal border crossings that expose them to blackmail and abuse at the hands of smugglers and security forces.

Read more: Netanyahu on African 'Infiltrators': We Will Return South Tel Aviv to Israelis | Tel Avivians Gather to Hear Asylum Seekers Firsthand | This Is Not How a Jewish State Should Treat Refugees

Uganda's vehement denial notwithstanding, if Israel and its East African partners had succeeded in keeping this arrangement under wraps, NGOs and human rights groups would not have found the ammunition needed to take to Israel's Supreme Court to challenge it at all. Rights groups argues that, for African refugees in Israel, choosing between detention in Israel, a return to potentially life-threatening Eritrea or relocation to Uganda with $3,500 in hand, is no choice at all.

Therefore, the quiet agreement, contrary to what the Uganda government spokesman claims, is for all intents and purposes an unholy alliance created to deliver mutual benefits.

A different era for refugees in Israel: Then Prime Minister Menachem Begin greeting Vietnamese refugees in Afula in 1977.Credit: GPO

Israel desperately wants to uproot 38,000 African refugees from its territory and in Uganda and Rwanda it has found governments that will do anything to lay their hands on Israeli arms, hence the vow of secrecy and conspiracy of silence.

Unfortunately, the danger with such a secretive arrangement is that after Israel has achieved its objective and Uganda and Rwanda have got theirweapons, no one really cares about the deportees.

Read more: No Work, No Money, No Hope: Deportees Bemoan Life Back in South Sudan | Israel Is Sending Asylum Seekers to Rwanda Without Status, Rights | Back in Sudan, Family Who Left Israel Faces Tyranny: They Grilled My Wife, Beat My Mom

Uganda might have won international acclaim for its generous refugee policy, but that is with regard to well documented refugees arriving from warring neighboring countries who come with low, if any, expectations.

According to a story published by Al Jazeera, the deported individuals have no legal status in Uganda and have to fend for themselves.

The Sunday Vision article adds that some refugees, having failed to settle in Uganda, have attempted to relocate to Europe by way of the treacherous and often fatal boat routes operated by people smugglers across the Mediterranean Sea.

For the young men who braved the torturous Sinai desert trek in search of a better life in the Holy Land, it's been a rude awakening. But the luckless, desperate deportees won't find their Promised Land in Uganda, either.

James Tumusiime is Managing Editor of Uganda's The Observer newspaper. He is also a former journalist fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University. Twitter: @TumusiimeJT

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