Israel's Deportations of Asylum Seekers Spur Tensions Between Rwanda, Uganda

Deportees from Israel are reportedly being smuggled from Rwanda into neighboring Uganda, causing tensions to rise between the neighbors

In this photo taken Tuesday, April 16, 2013, Rwandan refugee children play next to a nut processing machine on a street in the Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda.
AP Photo/Rebecca Vassie

The last few months have seen rising tensions between Rwanda and Uganda, the two countries to which Israel has been deporting asylum seekers. One source of tension is these asylum seekers. Last November several Ugandan policemen were arrested for collaborating with agents in Rwanda for the purpose of smuggling refugees and asylum seekers, including some deportees from Israel, from Rwanda to Uganda. Their trial is now underway in a military court.

Prior to that, Uganda’s Minister for Regional Cooperation Philemon Mateke called Rwanda’s ambassador in Kampala Frank Mugambage to his office, lodging a formal protest over Rwanda’s policies that route all the deportees to Uganda, despite agreements signed with Israel calling for them to go to both countries, according to quotas. Last January Rwanda and Uganda each denied that they had signed any secret deals with Israel.

The Rwandans offered to set up a committee to deal with the issue but Uganda refused, demanding that Rwanda desist from smuggling deportees over the two countries’ common border.

The deportees from Israel are but one of the sources of tension between the two countries. Another is that an exiled leader of the Rwanda National Congress opposition party, General Kayumba Nyamwasa, lives in Uganda. This greatly irks the Rwandan government since they see him and his organization as a subversive force working against Rwanda’s rulers while receiving aid, or at least freedom of action, in Uganda. According to the Rwandan government, the RNC is operating a training base in Uganda, as well as recruiting people who could commit acts of terrorism against Rwanda, all this with the knowledge of the Ugandan authorities.

Rwanda claims that several Rwandan citizens have been arrested recently in Uganda, with at least one of them being charged with espionage. The Rwandans claim that this is just a show of force that is unconnected to the charges. Several of the detainees have been in jail for weeks without being brought before a judge, according to Rwanda. One person has been released.

The five border crossings between Rwanda and Uganda have become focal points in which the two countries have been flexing their muscles in recent months. Despite an agreement among East African countries (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda) to forgo visa requirements for entering each other’s territory, these two countries are making it difficult for their citizens to do so. In the westernmost crossing in the Ugandan town of Katuna, several Ugandan money-changers were arrested on the Rwandan side of the border in recent months. Katuna’s mayor has formally protested these arrests before Rwandan authorities.

Last week Haaretz published the testimonies of 15 asylum seekers who are now in Uganda. They described the reality they now face, having no documentation, recognition of their status as asylum-seekers or work. They have one dream: to leave Uganda. They were expelled from Israel in recent years, but found that promises of a better life and that Israel would continue to look after them remained on paper only.