The Israeli government released Wednesday 58 asylum seekers from prison who had been jailed for refusing to be deported to Rwanda.
In a submission to the High Court of Justice, the state said these 58, who were held at Saharonim Prison, were offered a choice of deportation to Rwanda only and were jailed when they refused. They were not offered the choice of deportation to Uganda.
But on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the agreement with Rwanda had been canceled, meaning that deporting asylum seekers to that African country was no longer an option. Consequently, the state told the court, there is no longer any justification for keeping them in prison for refusing to go there.
The government told the Supreme Court earlier Wednesday that it is now examining the possibility of deporting asylum seekers to Uganda, even though that country’s foreign minister has said unambiguously that the country won’t take them. Without mentioning Uganda by name, the government said it had sent a special envoy to an African country to examine its suitability as a destination for asylum seekers.
If it turns out Israel isn’t able to send asylum seekers to Uganda either, the government said, it will release the other 212 still held at Saharonim.
Netanyahu’s associates said on Wednesday that the prime minister is also considering reopening the open detention facility at Holot, which was recently closed. Another option being explored is finding a third African country to take the asylum seekers instead of Rwanda and Uganda.
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The state’s brief said that former Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein had concluded Uganda was a suitable destination to which to send asylum seekers. It also noted that some have already gone there under Israel’s “voluntary departure” program.
Nevertheless, current Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit wants to reexamine the situation, and the special envoy is supposed to send updated information and answers to his questions, possibly as soon as Wednesday night. If, based on his report, forcible deportations to Uganda seem unfeasible, Mendelblit will order the remaining asylum seekers in Saharonim released.
But Uganda’s foreign affairs minister said publicly on Wednesday that his country will not accept an asylum seekers forcibly deported from Israel.
“We do not have a contract, any understanding, formal or informal, with Israel for them to dump their refugees here,” Henry Okello Oryem was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. He added that if any migrants deported from Israel arrive in Uganda, “we will insist that the airlines return them to the country where they came from.”
Wednesday evening, 500 people demonstrated in Jerusalem against the deportations.
Seranai Dori, an Eritrean asylum seeker, told the demonstrators, “The past few days have been very confusing for us. We thought our strong faith had been fulfilled and we’d managed to prevent the deportations. But apparently, we rejoiced and hoped too soon.
“Nobody chooses to be persecuted in his homeland, his own home,” she added. “We came to Israel because we thought it was a democratic country and would hear our cry for help. I want to ask Bibi now, here together with you, why doesn’t he accept us? Is it because of the color of our skin?” she asked, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “He should tell me, what did I do wrong? All we did is ask for a safe place to live. Ask the Israeli government with me now to see us as we are – human beings, like everyone, like you, who are turning to you and asking, ‘Give us shelter. Give us hope.’”
Activist Adi Har Zvi charged that “Cheap politics, games and spin overcame the just, moral, responsible voice and brought us back to square one.”
“There’s no agreement with Rwanda, there’s no agreement with Uganda, there’s no real solution and there’s no rehabilitation of the neighborhoods,” he added, referring to neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv with heavy concentrations of asylum seekers.
Har Zvi blasted Netanyahu for canceling a deal signed with the UN refugee agency under which about half the asylum seekers were to be resettled in Western countries. Netanyahu announced the deal on Monday, but less than 24 hours later, following pressure from within his party and from other parties in the governing coalition, he announced that Israel would cancel it.
“Canceling the agreement means abandoning the asylum seekers,” Har Zvi said. “Canceling the agreement means abandoning the residents of south Tel Aviv. Canceling the agreement means abandoning the image of Israeli society. We’re here to say clearly: Human life isn’t a political game.”