“If the Israelis force me to go to Rwanda, I will die,” says Gabriel, a name chosen at random to protect his identity. He is not sure of anything anymore. He is 27 years old, from Eritrea, and he entered Israel illegally four years ago to escape the long compulsory military service in his country and the threats by its security apparatus. Now he has only one certainty: He won’t come out of Rwanda alive.
I asked him to explain the reasons for his fears. “Some Eritrean guys who were here and who left for Rwanda [under pressure from Israel], wrote me about a dramatic situation there, with abuses and people disappearing into thin air,” he told me.
We are in the market adjacent to Levinsky street, not far from the main bus station in Tel Aviv. African asylum seekers, mostly Sudanese and Eritreans, have gathered in the Levinsky gardens for years. Now, they live in hiding. Gabriel agreed to talk to us only after he received assurances from one of our contacts. “No pictures, please,” he said. “We are in danger. I am hiding. We are all hiding. But we know that they [the officials of the Population and Immigration Authority] know where to find us.”
The conversation lasts for only a few minutes. Before vanishing to an unknown destination, Gabriel tells me that he may “choose to go to jail” rather than leave Israel for Rwanda. But he will not have it easy in the prisons of the Negev.
Two days ago, the Israeli government issued a notice saying that if the 27,494 Eritreans and 7,869 Sudanese who are now in the country don’t leave voluntarily, accepting a plane ticket and $3,500, before April 1, they will be jailed indefinitely. The plan exempts—for now—children, the elderly, and the victims of slavery and human trafficking. But the policy has not persuaded the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which finds it in violation of international law.
But according to the Israeli government, which is counting on strong support from a large section of public opinion, especially that of the Israelis of the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv where the Africans have lived for years, all of this is regular and legal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that the inflow and presence of the Africans is threatening Israel’s “Jewish character.” And two days ago, Gilad Erdan, the minister for internal security and a possible successor to the prime minister, spoke of nothing less than a “historic decision” that will allow thousands of Israelis to resume a normal existence, without the Africans. Not surprisingly, the Northern League in Italy stated its approval for Netanyahu’s decision, urging Italy to follow suit and evict the migrants and asylum seekers.
They call it “expedited removal,” but it is nothing other than a deportation under the guise of the small financial incentive offered to the Africans so they would leave voluntarily as an alternative to imprisonment. The Israeli government has reached an agreement with Rwanda and Uganda, which have said they were willing to accommodate Sudanese and Eritreans, receiving $5,000 in their coffers for each person removed, as well as—according to rumors—military supplies and diplomatic support.
Uganda, however, has denied having reached an agreement with Tel Aviv to accommodate the Africans that the Netanyahu government has ordered out of the country. “We have no agreement with the Israeli government to send refugees from other countries that are in Israel to Uganda,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs Henry Okello Oryem on Thursday. He instructed reporters to “ask them [Israel] to explain how they reached that decision.” He added: “We are baffled by the reports.”
But no one believes the denials coming from Kampala. The Ugandan authorities probably would rather make these deals in secret, behind the scenes and not out in the open, to avoid embarrassment.
“The Eritreans and Sudanese are right to be afraid, because there are real dangers in Rwanda and Uganda,” Sigal Avivi, an activist for the rights of asylum seekers and migrants, told il manifesto in Tel Aviv.
A year ago, Avivi travelled to those two countries to follow up on what happened to some of the approximately 20,000 Africans who have already “left” Israel. She found a murky world with few answers and zero official transparency: “starting with the lack of access here in Israel to the list of asylum seekers who have already left,” she said.
Upon their arrival, Africans who leave Israel are immediately taken into custody and interrogated at undisclosed locations. Realizing these governments will not respect their rights or allow them to live a dignified life, they begin seeking a way to leave Rwanda and Uganda immediately. So once again they become the victims of smugglers, who push them into neighboring countries, including South Sudan, Sudan and eventually Libya. From there, they hope to cross into Europe by sea—except that Libya is a hotbed for violence, torture and enslavement of refugees.
But few even make it to Libya, Avivi said. “They push them through the Sahara to Libya. It’s important to understand that this journey is very, very dangerous. Most of the people die in this journey through the Sahara,” she said. “Even though they pay the smugglers, they have no food and the smugglers always put petrol in the water so they drink little water.”
Those who return to their home countries, particularly Sudan, are arrested and severely punished for having been in Israel. “Most of the people have been deported to Sudan and to Eritrea. We have 6,000 people deported to Sudan and 2,000 or 3,000 people who’ve been deported to Eritrea.” Many are never heard from again.
She called on Netanyahu to stop the deportations and grant asylum to people who came to Israel to escape war and violence.