“Is everything alright?” asked the security guard at the departures counter at Ben-Gurion Airport last November. Ethan (a pseudonym), a 23-year-old asylum-seeker from Eritrea, broke down: “No, everything is really not alright.” Seven other asylum seekers, all on their way to Entebbe, were standing next to him. After making an inquiry, the confused security guard discovered that this was a group of “persons leaving voluntarily.”
Ethan had believed the authorities in Israel when they told him that he would receive temporary residency status in Uganda on condition that he left Israel, but for the past few months he has been living in Uganda without legal status, and in a state of great uncertainty.
Officially, Israel is not commenting on any agreement regarding asylum seekers it may have made with a third country, nor does it mention Uganda anywhere in writing. The murky policy translates into a lack of policy; the spokesman of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told Haaretz this month that Israel has no authority to ensure legal status in Uganda for asylum seekers. Two former senior officials who were involved in these issues informed Haaretz this month that there have been no official contacts aimed at reaching any such agreement, with any African state, since 2018.
“This specious story has been recycled for years in some of the Israeli media,” is how Ofwono Opondo, a spokesman for the president of Uganda, put it. "We don't have any discussion, plan any agreement now or in the future with Israel or any other government or country to host Eritrean refugees allegedly being relocated from any place in the world, let alone Israel. If you have such a purported agreement or discussion even in draft form please share it with the Uganda government." The spokesman added that if such an agreement did exist, even if in draft form, he would be happy to see it.
Haaretz has been in contact in recent months with Ethan, who has been living in the Ugandan capital Kampala. Haaretz also has been speaking with sources in the refugee aid organizations and with additional asylum seekers. The picture emerging from these contacts makes it clear that Israel’s promises to asylum seekers that they can obtain legal status from Uganda as part of its so-called “Assisted Voluntary Return” program is at odds with facts on the ground. Routinely, those who have departed Israel are left without official status of any sort. Those who are lucky enough to have documents in hand, quickly realize that said documents protect them only from expulsion. They do not enable them to work or travel outside Kampala.
Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority insists that this is the case in only a few isolated cases, and that asylum seekers in Uganda who want to receive legal status do in fact receive it. Moreover, sources in the authority and in human rights organizations involved with asylum seekers told Haaretz that most program participants are using the Uganda merely as a transit point on their way to another destination.
Ethan was born in 1998 in Nakoti, a small village in Eritrea close to the Ethiopian border. The family home had neither electricity nor running water. His father, who served in the army, was killed when Ethan was two years old. When he turned 10, Ethan’s brother was imprisoned after having been convicted of taking part in a coup against the authorities. To this very day, Ethan does not know what happened to his brother. Another brother deserted the army but was caught. Ethan decided not to wait for his turn, and fled the country at age 12. He reached Israel only coincidentally, after having traveled through Sudan and Egypt.
- Uganda to Take in Israel's Migrants
- The Uganda Files: How Israel Arms Brutal Dictators Who Recruit Child Soldiers
- Netanyahu, Sudanese Leader Meet in Uganda, Agree to Start Normalizing Ties
When he was 16, Ethan met Niv Ein-Gal, an engineer who lived in a farming community in the southern Sharon region, and the father of three, as part of an informal adoption project run by an aid organization. Ethan eventually moved in with the family, and attended regular Friday night and holiday dinners with the Ein-Gals until he left Israel. About a year ago, when he was 22, Ethan relayed the good news: he would soon be marrying his girlfriend of two years, an Eritrean who had already received asylum in Australia. Following the wedding, he planned to remain in Israel for another year or so until he could qualify for a family reunification permit. Then he would move to Australia. But shortly before the long-awaited day last November, his girlfriend’s entry to Israel was forbidden.
In a state of despair, Ethan decided to meet his girlfriend in a third country and be married there. He then planned to return to Israel until he could be reunified with her in Australia. However, Israel does not permit asylum seekers who leave the country to re-enter. As a last resort, he agreed to go through the marriage ceremony in Uganda, via the assisted voluntary return program.
Israel launched the program in 2013. Interior minister Ayelet Shaked has said numerous times that the state was relying on this program as the primary mechanism to “persuade the infiltrators to voluntarily leave Israel for a third country," as she put it. The procedure is simple. Asylum seekers declare at the Population and Immigration Authority that they are willing to leave. In exchange, the state provides them with a one-way plane ticket and a $3,500 grant, along with legal status in the country of destination.
Based on data of the Population and Immigration Authority made available to Haaretz, 134 asylum seekers left Israel “voluntarily” for Uganda in 2021, compared to only 77 in 2020, when coronavirus restrictions were prevalent, 413 in 2019 and 359 in 2018. The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants NGO has described the program as a “quiet expulsion” in a document it disseminated. Since the program’s inception, Hotline has interviewed hundreds of asylum seekers who left Israel for a third country and testified to the lack of any opportunity to acquire legal status in those countries.
About a year after the program was launched, Haaretz reported that asylum seekers were being sent to Rwanda and Uganda without status or rights. In 2018, a Haaretz correspondent visited Uganda and spoke with over 15 of the asylum seekers, who confirmed the claims. “I don’t have a future here,” one told Haaretz. “I have no hope, no job. My life is ruined.” That same year, when coerced expulsion to a third country was on the agenda, President Museveni stressed to Haaretz that there was no expulsion agreement of any sort with the country, official or not.
The Immigration Authority denies the claim. Not long ago, a high-ranking source in the authority contended that all of the asylum seekers arriving in Uganda do receive legal status. “We would not let them go anywhere where they would not receive legal status, and we are in contact with them to ascertain that such is the case,” the source told Haaretz. “We see them getting married and working.”
The aid organizations are not convinced. Sigal Rosen, public policy coordinator at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, told Haaretz that “the third countries constituted a reasonable solution for those refugees who could no longer tolerate the abuse of Israeli state authorities but who could not return to their homelands, where their lives were in danger, on condition that they knew the conditions awaiting them there.”
Whatever the case may be, a majority of those leaving the country through the assisted voluntary return program make their way to either Canada or Germany. Suitable candidates receive refugee status and a work permit. Only a small percentage decide to fly to Uganda. In the meantime, despite pandemic-related limitations, 1,038 asylum seekers from Israel have made their way to Canada over the past year.
November 15: Arrival
Upon landing in Entebbe, Ethan and his counterparts met a local who identified himself as an official representative. He took their passports. “I don’t get the feeling that he will return them to us,” Ethan wrote in a text message to Haaretz. Four of them shared a taxi to Tik Hotel in Kampala, where they stayed during their first two days. The official document Ethan had received in Israel was folded into an envelope that bore the logo of the Population and Immigration Authority. A letter from the authorities stated: “The bearer of this paper is entitled to a visa for 30 days.”
Aside from the letter, Ethan also had in his possession a paper on which the name “Michael” was written. Michael is a local contact person with whom many of the asylum seekers arriving in Uganda are familiar. Michael met with Ethan and his counterparts and told them that he works with the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority. He asked to photograph them both together and individually, in order to provide proof they had arrived safely. “Uganda is a nice, comfortable country,” Michael said, attempting to calm them. But then he immediately qualified the statement: “The visa that I will procure for you is being delayed, because many people are arriving at the same time. Fifteen people each time.”
“In Israel, we were told we would get four-year visas,” complained one of the Eritreans.
“I am sorry to hear that,” Michael replied. “I have never given anyone a four-year visa. I tell you the truth – you are my brothers but this is Uganda; sometimes it works quickly and sometimes slowly. Sometimes the director of immigration doesn’t come in to work, and it causes delays. You know, Africa is Africa.”
Meanwhile, it was made clear to Ethan and his friends that they were not permitted to walk around outside, not until they received the permanent visas. Michael advised them not to go into the city. “If you go to the city, you will be arrested,” he said. “You can phone me, and I will have you released. I have the power to release you from detention.”
Ethan went up to his room and sent a voice message to Haaretz: “He told me now that I am not getting legal status, that I may receive it only for one year and that it would cost money,” he said. “The Population and Immigration Authority told me that I would be a resident of Uganda, but here I am told something else.”
November 30: The letter
Concerned about his informally adopted son, Niv Ein-Gal sought clarifications from Population and Immigration Authority staffers. Orit Sharmi of the Authority’s enforcement division, emailed him the following assurance on November 30: “Those individuals leaving Israel receive upon arrival an unrestricted residency permit, and, as has already been stated, he is permitted throughout the time of his residence to study or to hold a job wherever he chooses.”
The actual situation was different. On one of the first times outside the hotel, a policeman stopped Ethan and demanded $100 to release him. Ethan argued, and the man threatened him with arrest. In the end, he was compelled to pay. Since that time, he has been detained four more times, and now he rarely leaves his apartment. “They can spot us by the way we look,” Ethan states. “They see that my color is different, that I am ‘habasha’ (a diminutive for those arriving from the Horn of Africa). Every 200 meters, someone can arrest you and you pay them; that’s how it works here. It is scary to leave your home.”
Marawee (a pseudonym, like that of all of the asylum seekers in this article), who arrived in Uganda with Ethan and did not receive legal status, told Haaretz that the police detain him frequently. He, too, was afraid to leave his home. “The truth is that it is shit here,” he replied when asked how he was. “All day long, the police are asking for permits or for money, and I have no passport, no visa, no nothing.”
David, another Eritrean asylum seeker, left Israel in November 2019. “I found someone to get me a visa for $1,500,” he stated. “He brought me a visa that needs to be renewed every three months. It’s worthless. I cannot fly with it and I cannot work with it.”
During his residence in Uganda, David asked Haaretz to find out what happened to the residency visa that the authorities had promised. He eventually received a temporary residency permit, which he must renew every three months. He is not allowed to leave Kampala’s city limits.
Nabil, an asylum seeker from Sudan who left Israel for Uganda, tells a similar story. “On the day of my arrival in Uganda, someone from Israel telephoned me,” he recalled. “He asked me if I had arrived alive and well, and told me that if I needed help then I would receive it. I said they had not helped me in Israel, so how could I believe you will help me here?”
Like the others, ever since his arrival last October, Nabil has remained without legal status. He says that Michael pressured him to give him the few official documents in his possession when he landed in Kampala. Nabil eventually succumbed, and handed over his passport. He has not worked in Uganda, and subsists on the money he earned and saved in Israel. “Here they don’t call it voluntary return, they call it expulsion,” he states resolutely.
These personal accounts were brought to the attention of the Population and Immigration Authority, which continued to claim that these are only isolated, unrepresentative cases. An authority source told Haaretz that the Assisted Voluntary Return unit makes supreme efforts to provide a viable solution to those leaving Israel. The official stressed that in the wake of judicial review by the High Court of Justice, the Authority makes efforts to remain in contact with asylum seekers leaving through the program. In Ethan’s case, the official explained, his level of cooperation had been limited. The official said the group that left Israel with him arrived at a time of bureaucratic changes in Uganda. “Ethan and his friends got stuck in the pipeline of requests, and these issues should be rectified in the near future,” he stated, adding that Ethan had a case of “bad luck.”
“In nearly 100 percent of cases, there are no problems,” he noted. The official insisted that Israel has an interest in asylum seekers who leave Israel being satisfied, in the hope that they will tell their friends about it. “Every such individual is an ambassador and a marketer for us,” the official added.
December 10: Distress
Ethan decided to contact Shai, an Immigration Authority official who was supposed to assist him. “I told him, ‘You are liars, you are criminals, you are corrupt,’” he recalled. “You told me I would get answers - and I am getting nothing.”
He also told Michael about his distress. The latter again assured him that the residency permit would arrive in another day or two – again for naught. “I have been here for 45 days, and I have nothing,” Ethan told Haaretz. “I have no document. Who am I? Everyone around me says I’ll get used to it. The state is lying to me.”
Meanwhile, Ein-Gal kept in daily contact with Ethan. The hardships and the frustration repeatedly led him back to the Immigration Authority officials, who assured him: “The process of receiving the permit is quick and efficient and takes a few days after submitting the request.”
December 11: Danger
Ein-Gal emailed the Immigration Authority. “Ethan tells me he feels that he is in danger every time he leaves the front door of his apartment. This is the reality for many of the Eritreans lacking legal status: leave the house, be arrested, pay money – over and over again. And between these incidents – unending fear,” he wrote. “Are the Interior Ministry, government and public aware of this?” Orit Sharami of the Immigration Authority, representatives of the Assisted Voluntary Return unit were in daily contact with Ethan. “The claim that his life is in danger is groundless; his matter is being dealt with, and we will respond to you very soon,” the response read.
Ethan spoke again with Shai.
January 25: Delay
Following Haaretz’s information request to the Population and Immigration Authority, Shai told Ethan that the Ugandan authorities had informed him that they were carrying out changes regarding the visa process. Therefore, the documents were being delayed. Shai promised the process will take “about two weeks,” and that Ethan and the others had “nothing to worry about.” However, he cautioned, “I am not a representative of Uganda.”
“I do not feel protected. Everyone here can arrest me. I have already been arrested,” Ethan responded. “I have paid money several times.”
Shai asked Ethan to document the arrests, although it is doubtful doing so would be looked kindly upon in a country like Uganda. “Everyone is a liar. Israel lied to me; here, too, everyone is lying,” Ethan told Shai. “I am saying this to your face, without shame.”
“It is not easy for me to hear this, certainly because you asked to leave Israel and Israel helped you leave,” Shai responded. “There is a small bureaucratic problem that we will solve.” Between then and press time, Ethan did not receive the promised visa.
The Population and Immigration Authority responded: “The Assisted Voluntary Return unit assists aliens residing in Israel unlawfully to leave voluntarily, either for their own country or another country. Ethan applied to the unit with a request for assistance to leave for a third country. He did so of his own volition.
"The alien left Israel voluntarily, and he flew after receiving a grant for voluntary departure from Israel, along with the deposit funds (a percentage of his earnings) to which he was entitled. Upon his arrival in the third country, the aforementioned chose at first not to cooperate with the required procedures. Nevertheless, the aforementioned has in his possession the telephone numbers of local contact persons who can assist him at any time. Population and Immigration Authority representatives are in daily contact with him, and he will soon receive the residency permit in the country he departed to.”