At the end of August, news emerged that Israel had reached an agreement with an unnamed East African country to absorb some of its tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers.
Gideon Sa’ar, Israel’s Interior Minister, reportedly told the Knesset on 28 August that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s special envoy had struck a deal with a ‘third country’ where African migrants, who have crossed into Israel via Egypt and whom Israel sees as “illegal infiltrators”, would be sent.
Several media sources, including the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, reported that that country is Uganda, though the Ugandan government denies such a deal exists.
Israel has refused to make public the details of any agreement, and though third party arrangements are not necessarily illegal, many human rights groups are concerned that asylum seekers could end up being deported back to the countries from which they fled originally.
Israel’s relationship with its Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers is a highly politically-charged issue, and getting refugee status in the country is notoriously difficult. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the average national recognition rate of asylum seekers is 39%; in Israel it is not even 1%. This is even more startling given that the majority of Israel’s asylum seekers are Eritreans and Sudanese, who have an average international recognition rate of 84% and 64% respectively.
African migrants also face high levels of discrimination in Israeli society, and right-wing politicians compete with one another over who can take a more hard-line stance on the matter. Israel encourages many of its asylum seekers to leave the country ‘voluntarily’, while many are held in prison for months if not years rather than being allowed to integrate into Israeli society.
Under international law, however another option is also available to Israel in dealing with its approximately 55,000 irregular migrants if it does not want to integrate them and they do not want to leave of their own accord. If a ‘third country’ can be found that is willing to absorb the asylum seeker and is deemed safe, the migrant can be resettled there.
Third country resettlement is a fairly rare occurrence. According to the UN Refugee Agency, only one percent of the 10.5 million refugees of concern to the organisation are submitted for this option, and only a small number of states absorb others’ asylum seekers, the main ones being the US, Australia, Canada, and the Nordic countries.
However, this seems to be the basis of Israel’s East Africa plan. According to the Times of Israel, Sa’ar explained that a willing country has been found where asylum seekers will be safe and eligible to work. Sa’ar also announced that the government would be raising awareness of the option to asylum seekers in coming weeks and be appealing to them to leave of their own accord. After a certain period, however, Sa’ar explained that the state would begin taking action against those who refused and enforce stricter laws against those who employ them.
Israel thus seems to have found a way out of absorbing its own asylum seekers, and the principle of its third country policy is not necessarily illegal under international refugee law. However, Israel’s choice of Uganda as a third country (if we are to believe the large number of reports on the issue) and the mass nature of its proposed deportation – rather than case-by-case evaluations – suggest Israel could in fact be flaunting its legal responsibilities and endangering the lives of thousands of African migrants in the process.
If a deal has been agreed with Uganda, it is not immediately clear what the East African nation would stand to gain from it, though there could be a clue in the fact the deal seems to have been struck during a period of increased military trade.
However, worrying for Israel’s asylum seekers, Uganda has a patchy record when it comes to dealing with refugees. In 2010, for example, the Ugandan government forcibly repatriated 1,700 Rwandans who had fled their country. Armed police reportedly rounded up the asylum seekers to put them onto trucks and, when some tried to escape, used physical force and fired shots, leading to some deaths and serious injuries. Uganda was heavily criticised by the UN Refugee Agency and other human rights groups for its forced mass deportations.
More recently in February 2013, in a case that could risk being repeated should Israel’s Uganda plan go ahead, an Eritrean asylum seeker in Israel reportedly agreed to be deported to Uganda. However, on arrival in Uganda, via a stopover in Egypt, authorities claimed the man had the wrong documentation and deported him back to Egypt. From there, he was then sent to back to Eritrea where he is believed to have been in prison ever since.
Under international law, the country deporting its asylum seekers to a third country must be sure those refugees will not end up being sent back to the country they fled. However, when it comes to Uganda, it is unlikely Israel can be wholly convinced Eritrean migrants will be safe.
Especially since the reopening of the Eritrean consulate in Uganda in 2009, there have been reports of Eritrean officials intimidating refugees and making threatening phone calls. One particularly dramatic case involved Yonas Embye, an Eritrean refugee and journalist living in Uganda, who staged a protest outside foreign embassies in Kampala, demanding the release of Eritrean prisoners of conscience. Embye claims the Eritrean consul himself drove up to him and said he would kidnap and repatriate Embye to Eritrea within 24 hours. Embye went into hiding.
Despite the legal questions remaining around Israel’s policy, it is not surprising that cabinet ministers have been keen to flaunt the deal to the nation as a huge success. Similarly, while Ugandan politicians may be similarly pleased at a deal, it perhaps makes sense that they would deny the existence of a deal to avoid Uganda being seen as a place where other countries’ can dump their undesirables.
However, the thousands of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea – are likely to be the least happy with any deal. Even if they are successfully deported to Uganda, they could face significant risks of ending up back in the countries from which they once fled.
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