Analysis. Scores of Eritreans, who were forcefully deported from Israel, are being relocated to Uganda in a secret deal that violates international law obligations and has elicited criticism from human rights activists. It is not clear yet what Uganda has been promised in return for accepting these refugees. Many Eritrean refugees escaping the Stalinist regime of Isaias Afewerki, now call Uganda their home. Bart Kakooza and Emmanuel Mutaizibwa analyse the issue.
Najjanankumbi, on the edge of the Kampala City, is a shabby suburb area dotted with desultory iron-roofed houses. But this suburb is a beautiful chaos that has warmly embraced Eritreans fleeing the rule of Afewerki.
First, there were scores that directly relocated from Asmara and other Eritrean towns.
Many were escaping harsh conditions and a clampdown on civil liberties by Afewerki. Of late, the numbers are growing after Israel forcefully expelled scores of Eritrean refugees.
Daily Monitor has learnt that some of the expelled immigrants are being brought into the country in a method akin to trafficking. Once inside Uganda, they are unable to claim refugee status due to the manner in which they were relocated.
“The Israeli government gave us $3,500 (about Shs13m) each and put us on a plane destined for Kigali, Rwanda. At Kigali airport, a person received us and took us to a hotel where we stayed for two days. It was then that we were each asked to pay $250 (about Shs940,000),” reveals one of the immigrants, whose identity is concealed for his safety.
“They claimed the money was to facilitate our transfer to Kampala.
Instead the journey to Kampala was through irregular routes through bushes and footpaths using taxis. We finally made it safely to Kampala. I strongly believe that the person who received us at Kigali airport and escorted us to Kampala was part of the bigger Israel-Rwanda governments’ network,” says another source.
Uganda has a favourable refugee process and currently is home to about 1.4 million, many of them escaping the war in DR Congo and South Sudan.
However, those who enter through unlawful means are treated as illegal immigrants.
“All those who gain access to the country through forests and lakes once found are subjected to the law. They are treated as illegal immigrants and as such prosecuted,” Mr Jacob Simunyu, the Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesperson, says.
As the numbers of those entering Uganda illegally swell, Eritrean organisations in Uganda have formed lobby groups demanding a proper registration of their colleagues who have been expelled from Israel.
“There is a legal dilemma. They are neither migrants nor refugees. So, they are stateless here. They don’t have a document to show they are Sudanese or Eritrean,” the former Eritrean court judge, Mr Muluberham Berhe, who fled Asmara and now lives in Kampala, says.
Human rights lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi offers pro-bono legal services to the Eritreans but claims he was frustrated.
“What I had planned to do was to seek a declaration that these people are refugees here and they should be protected. They should be given settlement, some land and some food. But this person [Eritrean] eluded me and many others have all eluded me,” he says.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) office in Uganda, mandated to do third-party relocation of refugees, has not been approached to assist.
“In many countries, when the government has a specific undertaking of repatriation, they request IOM or other partners to assist. In this particular case, IOM has not been asked to [assist]. The information we have is quite scanty. It’s only what we’ve seen in the media and in the statements that the government has issued,” Mr Ali Abdi, the Chief of Mission at IOM in Uganda, says.
In February 2018, Israel MPs and human rights activists travelled to Uganda on a fact-finding mission about the fate of those deported.
“We went to Rwanda and we saw that all the asylum seekers previously in Rwanda moved to Uganda a few days later. So, we tried to understand what is their situation in Uganda. What are they doing in Uganda? We saw a terrible situation,” Mr Mossi Raz, an Israeli Member of Parliament, says.
After the delegation visit, Rwanda became reluctant to take in more refugees.
“Five days after our visit, the government [of Rwanda] sent a message to the Israeli government that they will not accept refugees or asylum seekers coming from Israel,” Mr Raz adds.
Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is among the human rights organisations that are against the deportations.
“This is a political struggle where we are struggling to change the character and policies in Israel for non-Jewish migrants to enable them in this country a process, for both asylum seekers and migrants, of becoming part of the Israel society. This is why it is a very deep and sensitive topic, and a struggle within the Israeli society,” Mr Einat Podjamy, the programmes manager of Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, says.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Nentanyahu, who is keen on the deportations to stirjingoism among the nationals, says: “We implemented a tough policy and took out more than 20,000 and around 35,000 [immigrants] are still remaining. Most of them are in South Tel Aviv and the neighbourhood. I visited the neighbourhood and witnessed the suffering of the [Israeli] people. I visited the homes and talked to the residents. I visited in the night and saw the problem. We resolved to remove the remaining ones.”
He adds that his expulsion policy has encountered challenges.
“The court order stopped us from taking them to a country that is willing to take them without their consent (migrants). To address this problem, we looked for a country that was willing to accept them without first seeking their consent. This was an important breakthrough that gave us hope. We started taking these people to that country. We realised that this country [Rwanda] could not stand the pressure and the set terms. We just found out a few weeks ago that the option of the third country is not viable. We are trapped. This means that we are going to be trapped with these people here,” he says.
However, it appears that whereas the Israel-Rwanda deal was scuttled, Uganda has not out-rightly rejected the transfers. This deal between Israel and Uganda has largely been secretive and taken place outside the ambit of the law.
In July 2013, an Israeli official revealed that the country was in the final stages of negotiating a deal to send asylum seekers to “third countries” in Africa in return for funds and assistance in the fields of defence and agriculture. Uganda initially denied any deal with Israel.
“That is not true, that is unfounded information and we do not know where it originated from. I would like to make it very clear today for the record that we have no written, verbal or any formal agreement with Israel to host refugees who were rejected, deported or fled Israel to come to Uganda,” Mr Oryem Okello, the State Minister for International Affairs, said.
But in a change of heart, the Uganda government said it would only allow those who voluntarily accept the relocation.
“In view of the above, the state of Israel, working with other refugees’ managing organisations, has requested Uganda to allow about 500 Eritreans and Sudanese refugees to relocate to Uganda. The government and ministry are positively considering the request,” Mr Musa Ecweru, the Minister of State for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, said in a statement he delivered at the Uganda Media Centre in April last year.
This came barely after Israel handed an ultimatum to male migrants from Eritrea and Sudan, giving them three months to take the voluntary deal with a plane ticket and $3,500 or risk being thrown in jail.
The deportations were met with flak from human rights organisations as they violated the international law obligation of non-refoulement. This prohibits states from transferring anyone to a country where they would be at risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations or abuses, or to a country where they would not be protected against such transfer.
The Israel High Court of Justice, in March 2018, had also temporarily halted the deportations on the premise of violating the rights of immigrants.
Former Eritrean Court Judge Muluberham Berhe says most of those who fled were escaping mandatory military service, which targets those between the age of 18 and 55 years.
“The majority of the youths are members of the national youth service and the national service, according to the law that was supposed to be one year and 18 months. But for almost 20 or more years, [youths] are still members of the national service,” Mr Berhe says.
He adds that this has affected the most productive segment of the Eritrean society.
The mandatory military service came on the heels of a border war with Ethiopia that cost an estimated 100,000 lives.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says by 2016, there were 459,000 Eritrean exiles out of an estimated population of 5.3 million people.
Mr Samuel Yoannes, 38, served in the army for 10 years before he decided to flee Eritrea in 2008. He trekked through Sudan to Khartoum and reached Israel in 2010.
“I fled the country to Sudan destined for Shagarab [a refugee settlement (70km from Eritrean border). While there, I met human traffickers who took me to a group locally known as Rashaida who offered to take us through the desert to Israel,” he says.
“The Rashaidas first took us to Kessela, a town in Sudan and then to Sinai desert where we wandered for two months and lost direction. After this horrific experience, they shifted us to another territory and then later took us to Cairo, and then to the Israel border,” he adds.
Mr Yoannes claims that the traffickers demanded that each of them should call their relatives so that they can pay at least $15,000 (about Shs56m).
“I cannot forget the horrific scenes of some people who were severely beaten for protesting against the demand. Payments were made and we set off at 2am heading for the border. No sooner had we set off than we were showered with a barrage of bullets from the Palestinians that left two of us dead and many injured,” Mr Yoannes says.
“The rest of us luckily managed to enter Israel. Then the Egyptians demanded for $15,000. I didn’t have money at that time, so I was put in prison. I was asked to call my relatives and friends in Eritrea to contribute and my mother sold her jewelry to raise the money to pay the ransom. All those Eritreans who failed to pay had to be severely beaten every morning,” Mr Paul Adonay says.
The families that sold every chattel to ruthless traffickers hoped that their relatives would have a better future in Israel. However, as the deportations in Israeli continue, those being forcefully resettled in Uganda remain shackled in bondage, as they have been rendered stateless.