Rwanda's government on Tuesday denied reaching an agreement with Israel on accepting thousands of asylum seekers slated to be deported.
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"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 Rwandan government tweeted.
"In this regard, Rwanda's policy vis-à-vis Africans in need of a home, temporary or permanent, within our country's means, remains 'open doors,'" it added.
"Rwanda’s position on migrants, wherever they may originate from, was informed and shaped by a sentiment of compassion towards African brothers and sisters who are today perishing in high seas, sold on the markets like cattle or expelled from the countries in which they sought shelter. Rwanda is ready to help in whatever limited way it could, by welcoming anyone arriving at its borders in need of a home, voluntarily and without any constraint.”
Some 2,000 asylum seekers gathered Monday before the Rwandan embassy in Israel to protest government efforts to deport them. In recent days, the Population and Immigration Authority has begun telling Eritrean asylum seekers at the Holot detention center that they must leave for Rwanda or be imprisoned indefinitely at the Saharonim prison.
They called out in Hebrew, "Stop the unjustified hatred, refugees are people," "We don't buy racist plans," "Recognizing a refugee is a moral duty" and "We won't give in to despair, we will stop the deportation." Demonstrators held signs reading, among other slogans, "From refuge in Rwanda to trafficking in Libya, expulsion to Rwanda – a death sentence," "Black lives matter – not in Israel" and "Refugees are not for sale." Another sign was aimed at Rwandan President Kagame, referring to the $5,000 Israel will allegedly pay his country for each asylum seeker it accepts: "How many bombs did our blood buy?"
Last Thursday, an authority official spoke with 20 of the 886 people detained there, informing them that they must indicate within a month whether they intend to leave the country. She proposed that they go to Rwanda, but the documents they received do not mention this country as a destination. According to guidelines published by the Immigration Authority last week, it will be possible to deport to a third country anyone who did not file an asylum request by the end of 2017, or anyone whose request was denied.
“We’re here to protest our expulsion” said Johnny, an Eritrean asylum seeker and one of the demonstration's organizers. “This agreement [between Israel and Rwanda] is illegal. It’s shameful, it’s terrible. There’s never been anything like it. We’re prepared to sit in jail rather than go there. The minute you get there you can’t stay. You’re illegal, you have no documents, you can’t work and the language is difficult. They take all your money and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Instead of facing such a death we prefer being in jail. I’m from Eritrea; I didn’t go to Uganda or Rwanda. I came to Israel. Why doesn’t it give us the things it’s obliged to, even though it’s a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention?"
At the interviews, asylum seekers were given two pages written in Hebrew, labeled ‘Information sheet for infiltrators leaving for a safe third country’. It says: “We wish to inform you that Israel has signed agreements that enable you to leave to a safe third country which will receive you and give you a residence permit which will allow you to work and ensure you are not repatriated to your country of origin.” It further states that “the country you are going to is one that has made great progress over the last decade, absorbing thousands of returning residents and migrants from various African countriesthere is stability in this country which has enabled development in many areas, including education, medicine and infrastructure.”
The Population Authority clarified that it would issue asylum seekers who deport themselves Israeli travel documents and pay for their flights. “Our representatives will accompany you through the entire process up to your flight. You can address all your questions to them.” The Authority says that every person will be given $3,500 before boarding the plane, along with an entrance visa to the country of destination.
"Upon arrival you will be met by a local team which will accompany you during the first few days there. It will take you to a prearranged hotel, where you will meet local representatives who will explain the choices you have and help you start your adjustment” says the document which was handed out.
Testimony by asylum seekers who’ve left Israel in recent years for Rwanda and Uganda shows that these countries do not afford protection or basic rights. Many asylum seekers thus continue their journey in search of an asylum. Two months ago Haaretz reported testimonies given by Eritreans and Sudanese who had lived in Israel, left for Rwanda and then made their way to Germany and Holland.
They said they were not allowed to remain in Rwanda and their status remained undetermined there. Many were imprisoned while searching for other refuges, subjected to violence and extortion, often facing death. With no legal status or documents they were exposed to repeated threats of deportation to their countries of origin from which they’d escaped. Some were held under harsh conditions in facilities in Libya, before making a dangerous sea crossing to Europe.
The Rwandan government has never provided details about the talks with Israel that it has acknowledged having with Israel. President Paul Kagame told Haaretz in an interview in March 2017: "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." Regarding Rwanda's interest in a deal, Kagame 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."
Two months ago, Rwanda's foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, said her country was ready to accept around 10,000 African asylum seekers from Israel. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had announced in September that he had amended the agreement with Rwanda, Mushikiwabo said two months later that the states had yet to reach a final agreement and that they were still negotiating issues like who would be responsible for the refugees' welfare in the receiving country. "
"If they are comfortable to come here, we would be willing to accommodate them. How it’s done and their livelihoods once they are here are details that have not been concluded yet,” the minister told Rwanda's The New Times. “I think what we are looking for is for any migrant coming to settle here to have the minimum basics to have housing, to be able to stay in the country long enough while finding a job or setting up a business. We expect everyone to have a minimum of shelter. We do not envision people to come here and stay in camps. We envision giving them a normal life.”