13 January 2018

East Africa: Rwanda, Uganda Disown Refugee Deal but Israel Insists One Exists

Photo: Tiia Monto/Wikimedia Commons
Flag of Israel.

The United Nations is urging Israel to not force out African refugees on its soil after it emerged that Rwanda and Uganda had opted out of the controversial deal to have the refugees relocated.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says the lives of the African refugees will be endangered if they are forcibly repatriated to their countries of origin -- mainly Eritrea and Sudan -- or third countries.

Earlier reports indicated that Rwanda and Uganda had offered to take the 40,000-or so African refugees in Israel, but as the deal attracted controversy, with rights groups criticising it, the two countries denied being part of it.

Rwanda's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in charge of East African Community affairs Olivier Nduhungirehe told The EastAfrican that there was no such a deal, despite President Paul Kagame in 2015 and 2016 affirming ongoing discussions with Tel Aviv regard this.

"There were negotiations sometime back (3-4 years ago) but there was no deal. The President never said there was one. This story of a deal between Israel and Rwanda is fake news. Nothing more," Mr Nduhungirehe said.

His Ugandan counterpart Henry Okello Oryem similarly denied the existence of such a deal. However information obtained from the UN refugee agency indicates that some refugees had already been repatriated to the two countries, and that some have tried to find their way into Europe.

Israel had committed itself to put a financial incentive for receiving countries.

According to the UN, 80 of those repatriated by Israel have since attempted the dangerous journey to Europe.

"Feeling they had no other choice, they travelled many hundreds of kilometres through conflict zones in South Sudan, Sudan and Libya after being relocated by Israel," the spokesperson of the UNHCR, William Spindler, told reporters in Geneva last week.

Forced relocations

Mr Spindler said that along the way, "they suffered abuse, torture and extortion before risking their lives once again by crossing the Mediterranean to Italy."

UNHCR staff interviewed the refugees in Rome between November 2015 and December last year at reception centres and informal settlements. All were adult males, some with family members still in Israel.

"In every case, they reported torture, mistreatment and extortion before reaching Europe," said Spindler, adding that some said that others travelling with them had died en route to Libya.

The majority maintained that they had been transferred from Israel to "a country in Africa" and provided with $3,500, the UN said, avoiding mentioning Rwanda and Uganda.

However, the UNHCR office in Rwanda confirmed that it had been in contact with refugees repatriated to Rwanda since 2014.

"UNHCR is in contact with a handful of refugees who arrived in Rwanda from Israel between 2014 and 2015. But we do not have specific information on how many individuals have arrived over the past few years and if they are still here and settled in Rwanda," Erika Fitzpatrick, the UNHCR public information officer said.

"Due to a lack of clarity concerning its implementation, it has been difficult for UNHCR to follow up and systematically monitor the situation of people relocated to these African countries from Israel and ensure that their human rights are respected," she added.

"UNHCR is seriously concerned over Israel's plans announced on January 1 to forcibly relocate Eritreans and Sudanese to countries in Africa or have them face indefinite detention," UNHCR said in a statement.

The UN agency said the planned forcible repatriations are worrisome.

"At a time when UNHCR and partners are engaged in emergency evacuations from Libya, forced relocation to countries that do not offer effective protection and the onward movement of these people to Libya and Europe is particularly worrisome," Mr Spindler said.

According to the UN, there are some 27,000 Eritreans and 7,700 Sudanese in Israel, however since 2009, when Israel took over refugee status determination from the UNHCR, only 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese have been recognised as refugees.

Alternative solutions

It further notes that while 200 Sudanese from Darfur were granted humanitarian status in Israel along with an announcement that 300 more will follow, Israel has not received any Eritreans or Sudanese since May 2016.

"UNHCR stands ready to work with Israel to find alternative solutions for the protection needs of asylum seekers, in line with international standards," Mr Spindler.

Meanwhile Israel human rights groups fighting to block the deportations have urged Rwanda to stick to its position and not accept the refugees.

"This refusal by the Rwandan government to take part in transfer agreements with Israel means Rwanda refuses to demean African refugees, or deny them basic rights," Adi Drori-Avraham, representative of Aid Organisation for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel told The EastAfrican.

"We hope Rwanda will stay firm in its refusal to collaborate with the government of Israel in such plans," Ms Drori-Avraham added.

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