It’s been four years since the life of Goitom, 28, from Eritrea changed dramatically. When he came to renew his residency visa in Israel, an immigration official told him he had to report to the Holot detention facility. At that time, people were being kept there indefinitely. Goitom did not agree to give up his freedom and preferred to accept the offer from the Population, Immigration and Border Authority to become one of the first African asylum seekers to leave for Rwanda.
“I didn’t want to go to the prison. I thought maybe it would be better for me in Rwanda than in prison, but it has become like a prison for me here,” he said this week in a video interview with Haaretz from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. The despair is evident on his face.
For more than two months now he has been living in the street. “Things are so bad. I am living very badly. I have no home, there is no work,” he says. “Before, there were a few people who helped me. The United Nations also helped – they gave me money for lodging and food. But they stopped.”
He describes a daily fight for survival.’”Sometimes I eat with friends, sometimes I ask for help from people who have a restaurant, sometimes I go to sleep without eating.” In the four years he has been living in Rwanda he has not been employed for a single day, though he says he has invested a lot of effort in looking for work. He opened a small shop for selling basic items but it failed and had to shut down within a few months. “When I opened the business I didn’t know the language and therefore I lost money,” he explains.
He had crossed the Egyptian border into Israel in 2008. He says he left Eritrea because of “political problems.” After six years in Israel he boarded the flight to Rwanda together with two other asylum seekers. At first he received a visa that allowed him to stay for three months but then it was denied him.
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“For more than a year I lived without any documentation,” Goitom says. Then the authorities in Rwanda gave him a visa that he was required to renew every three months. After a year, they refused to renew it again and sent him to the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. There he received a UNHCR document stating that he is an asylum seeker. Last year he left the document at the place where he was living, was stopped and arrested and sent to prison for two days.
Like the other asylum seekers who left Israel, he received a grant of $3,500. He says the money lasted for two years. At first he says he was cheated and charged exorbitant amount rent, but later he learned the market rates. When the money ran out he found himself in the street. He wants to leave Rwanda but doesn’t see any practical possibility of doing this.
“It’s very hard to cross the border without documents,” he says. Going back to Eritrea is out of the question. “How can I go back?” he says. “If I go back there now they will put me in prison for 10 to 20 years. It’s impossible.”
Only nine former sojourners in Israel left in Rwanda
His story reflects the situation of the few asylum seekers who left Israel for Rwanda and have remained there. The UNHCR office in Kigali knows about only nine them. All the rest have left; most have been smuggled into Uganda. Six of those who remain in Rwanda agreed to share their stories with Haaretz. The interviews with four of them were conducted in English and the other two in Arabic, with the help of an interpreter. All six live a meager existence in Kigali, struggling to survive. Some have lost all hope. The luckier ones have a roof over their heads and money for food. Others depend on the generosity and kindness of friends and local people and the limited help from the UN.
The authorities in Rwanda do not recognize their right to be there and refuse to grant them residency permits. Lacking official documents, they have frequently been arrested and jailed. They are not fluent in the local language, the culture is foreign to them and finding work is nearly impossible. Though they arrived in Rwanda at different times, they all tell a similar story that raises concern for the fate of those who will be deported from Israel in the near future. All the people interviewed regret their decision to leave for Rwanda and urge the asylum seekers in Israel not to follow their example.
“The prison in Israel is preferable,” they declare.
‘I hope Israel won’t send my children to Rwanda’
The confiscation of their documents recurs in all the testimonies. “When I arrived here they took my documents. They said to me that if you want to, you can go to Uganda, if want to, you can stay in Rwanda. I told them that my country is at war and I want to remain in Rwanda,” recounts “Jacob,” (not his real name), 42, from South Sudan, who left a wife and four children behind in Israel. His wife, a citizen of Sudan, was permitted to remain in Israel with the children while he was required to leave after his country declared its independence.
At first he refused to leave Israel and was held in Saharonim Prison in the Negev. The population authority offered him the option of leaving for Rwanda or Uganda. After a year in Saharonim he gave up and chose Rwanda. “The situation here is very bad. I am suffering. I have no work and I have no home. I have nothing. The UN gives us hospital [care], clothing and shoes, not food,” he says.
Shortly after he arrived in Rwanda, Jacob opened a small business but could not maintain it. “I didn’t have food, I didn’t receive any support. The UN ... did not give us food or housing.” Currently he is living with friends. “I don’t pay them,” he clarifies. “Sometimes I live with friends, sometimes I sleep outside.”
Jacob, too, has only a UN document, after the authorities in Rwanda granted him a visa for a limited time and refused to renew it. “They didn’t explain to me why they stopped. They said they don’t want people who came from Israel to come for immigration,” he says, noting that he was referred to the UN.
He says the police arrested him three times and that he filed an application for asylum but has not received a reply. “They didn’t reject me but they said you have to wait. We are still waiting. He asked the UN office for absorption in a refugee camp but was refused. “A refugee camp is better for me. If they would take me I would get food and housing but they refused.
“I am sorry I came to Rwanda,” Jacob concludes. “I have received nothing. There is no work. Life is very hard here. I hope that Israel will not send my children to Rwanda,” he repeats. His message to asylum seekers in Israel is clear and unambiguous:
“I am telling you that there is no work here, no help. We are suffering. How can you bring people here? We have no food, we have no home. If people come, they will suffer like I am. It is better to say there in prison than to come here.”
'Why do I need to go to prison?'
Teklesambat, 38, from Eritrea, spent five years in Israel. When in 2014 he was ordered to report to Holot, he decided to leave the country. “If you have a problem with your own country, go to Rwanda,” the population authority people told him. “I was a soldier for eight years in Eritrea. I can’t go back there,” he says, adding that he knew nothing abut Rwanda but decided to go there in order to avoid imprisonment in Israel. “I didn’t make any mistake in Israel so why do I need to go to prison? I left Israel and I came to Rwanda.”
At the airport in Kigali he received a one-month tourist visa. He says immigration officials confiscated all his documents, Along with two other asylum seekers who came with him from Israel, he rented an apartment for $200 a month, far more than the market price. One of the men who made the journey with him is still in Rwanda. The other left for Uganda and contact with him has been cut off.
“When we came, we didn’t have anything, not a single document. I stayed here in Rwanda for a year without any documents,” says Teklesambat. “The UNHCR office sent us to immigration. We didn’t get anything.” He too says he never managed to find work. “Even the locals don’t have work, so how am I going to find work as a foreigner?”
The $3,500 he received from Israel, he says, did not last him a year. Then the UNHCR office funded an apartment and food for him and his roommates. “After that maybe they got tired and they told us: ‘You have to find work.’ Where are we going to find work? We slept outside the UNHCR office for two months. That was in 2016. After that, what can we do? We have nothing, we have no work, we are suffering. We asked to go to a refugee camp and they didn’t let us,” he says, noting that he applied in writing several times to the Rwandan government office responsible for dealing with refugees, and never received a reply.
“I live in the street. People help me. People here are generous but they don’t even have enough for themselves,” he says. “It is better to stay in Israel, even in prison – you have food, you have a place to stay. You know what our situation is here. It is better to stay there and struggle.”
Works at a farm for no pay
John, 28, from South Sudan has been arrested three times for lack of a visa since he arrived in Rwanda. He says the first time he was held for five days, the second time for a week and the third time for nearly two weeks. The first two times he was released by immigration authorities and the third time was helped by the UNHCR office. John, like the others, spent many months with no official documents. For a year he had a visa from the government of Rwanda and now he has a document from the UN refugee office.
He came to Israel in 2007 and left for Rwanda after seven years. “When I arrived at the airport in Rwanda they did not take away my documents. They took me to a hotel. At the hotel they took away my documents. Because I could not afford to stay there, they advised me to rent an apartment in Kigali. I rented with three other people and together we paid $200 a month.” An immigration official came to him and proposed that he leave for Uganda. “He advised me to be in touch with a person who could smuggle me into Uganda. I refused because I didn’t want to go to Uganda that way.
“I asked the immigration authority for a document so that I could open a business,” he continues. “I also asked for a travel document so I could go to Uganda in an official way, not through smuggling. I waited for a year and then they sent to me to the UNHCR office, where they made it clear to me that they could not issue me any such document. I am still waiting.” For five months now he has been living on a friend’s farm in a rural area outside Kigali. “I tend animals at the farm. He does not pay me but in exchange I can live there and eat.”
No work, no food
For seven years Mussie, 32, from Eritrea lived in Israel. In 2015 he was sent to Holot and decided to leave for Rwanda. Fifteen people from Israel came with him. One, whose Facebook posts he saw, went on to Libya in an attempt to get to Europe. Then Mussie heard from friends that the man had been murdered by Islamic State fighters. Mussie has no connection anymore with the rest of the group and does not know what has become of them.
At the airport in Rwanda officials confiscated his documents. He says that from there the immigration people took him straight to a hotel, where he stayed three nights for free. After that he was asked to pay and left for an apartment, for which he paid exorbitant rent.
The grant he received in Israel lasted him two years. His situation is better than that of the others. He is now living alone in a small apartment in Kigali and paying about $20 a month for it. He owns a small shop for basic items but says he will close it soon. “I’m not making any profit, I am losing money. I don’t have customers. It is my own business, but very small. I sell soap, sugar. I want to close,” he says. “We don’t have any work in Rwanda, we don’t have food, we don’t have anything. This is just a life of survival. From the government of Rwanda you can’t get any papers or any help.”
‘I advise people not to come to Rwanda’
Aman, 39, from Eritrea served in the army for nine years until he deserted to Ethiopia in 2008. He stayed in a refugee camp for awhile and from there he continued to Israel via Sudan and Egypt. After six years in Israel, during the summer of 2015, he was told he had to report to Holot or go back to his country. “I told them I had a political problem in my country and I can’t go back there, so they suggested that I go to Rwanda,” he says.
Aman also says the immigration officials in Rwanda confiscated his documents as soon as he landed at the airport. “I traveled with 11 other people – nine men and two women. They took our documents and sent everyone to sleep for three nights at a hotel.” After one night at the hotel, the group decided to continue on to Uganda. Each of them was asked to pay $250 to be smuggled across the border into that country.
“I’m not sure whether the man was from immigration or from the hotel. He was called John,” he says of a man who is mentioned many times by the asylum seekers interviewed.
“The whole group left for Uganda except for me. I came to stay in Rwanda. John said to me, ‘Why are you staying here? This is not a good country to live in. You’d be better off in Uganda.’ I insisted on staying in Rwanda. For three days I stayed at the hotel that was paid for by the government. After the three days, that same person took me into Kigali in his car. He left me by myself to look for a place to stay.”
He rented an apartment and tried again and again to apply to the Rwandan immigration authority but was refused. “At the immigration office I was told, ‘You can open a business. You can work. There’s no problem.’” At the end of 2015, he says, he received a visa like the others. Then he opened a restaurant but lost money and closed it after two months and sold the equipment. From the remaining money he bought a motorcycle and drove passengers for pay. After three months of that, he opened a small shop where he sold basic household items but after a month he had to close it because of a criminal entanglement.
Aman says a women with whom he had a romantic relationship accused him of harassment. “The police arrested me and I stayed in jail for 45 days.” During that time, he says, the woman stole all his savings and disappeared. “When I was in jail a friend advised me to sell the shop and the motorcycle to pay for a lawyer. After 45 days a judge ruled that I was innocent and I didn’t need to stay in jail after I had already lost everything. I complained to every government office, and to the immigration office and to the UNHCR office. At the moment I have nothing, I am hopeless, I have no work and sometimes I sleep at night at people’s’ homes and sometimes I sleep in the street.”
He regrets his decision to come to Rwanda and says the government of Israel forced him to do it, against his will. “I urge people not to come to Rwanda because they will not get any aid. This is not the life I had hoped for when I arrived here.”