Migrants from Israel robbed, trafficked in Rwanda, researchers say
AP Photo/Oded Balilty
Being herded on foot across the across the hills of Rwanda in the dead of the night without food or water was not what Tesfay expected when he had accepted $3,500 from the Israeli government just days earlier.
Like 4,110 other mainly Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel since 2014, he had agreed to depart for a “third country” with promises of legal residence and work.
Instead, they were fleeced.
“They beat us, they said give us money … they told us they would kill us, so what is there to do? We gave them everything, everything,” Tesfay said of his arrival in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.
The 23-year-old’s story, and that of 18 others, are collated in a report released on Thursday by three researchers that pieces together how the Israeli authorities’ promise of a new life collapsed into months on the run through Africa, dodging corrupt officials and violent people smugglers.
Many made their way to Libya and onwards to Europe. According to the witnesses, several people who were previously in Israel were among the thousands who have drowned in the Mediterranean.
The report only recounts the stories of a sliver of those who agreed to leave Israel. However the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) believes that of the thousands who went to Rwanda from Israel, only seven remain there.
Activists fear the tale of the last six years will repeat itself, only on a vaster scale, after the Israeli government passed a law late last year declaring an ultimatum to the 37,288 remaining African migrants in Israel: Rwanda or prison.
'No secret deal'
Independent researchers Liat Bolzman, Shahar Shoham and Lior Birger conducted the interviews in Europe in cooperation with the Hotline for Migrants and Refugees, an Israeli NGO which advocates on behalf of asylum seekers.
The testimonies contained in the report, as well as 83 others collected in Italy by the UNHCR and released earlier this month, contradict Rwanda’s denial that they ever struck a deal with Israel to accept unwanted asylum seekers.
“In reference to the rumors that have been recently spread in the media, the Government of Rwanda wishes to inform that it has never signed any secret deal with Israel regarding the relocation of African migrants,” the official Rwandan government account tweeted earlier this month.
Tiny Rwanda has hosted hundreds of thousand of refugees from neighboring conflicts in Africa, and a second tweet insisted that their refugee policy is “shaped by a sentiment of compassion towards African brothers & sisters who are today perishing in high seas, sold on the markets like cattle or expelled from countries in which they sought shelter”.
Israel says the vast majority of the Eritrean and Sudanese -- who entered the country via Egypt before the construction of a border wall -- are not genuine refugees but seeking work in the nearest developed country.
On Sunday Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who says Rwandan president Paul Kagame is a friend, dismissed criticism of Rwanda’s capacity to handle refugees as “absurd” and noted that “the UN considers [Rwanda] to be one of the safest countries in Africa.”
He also said those who are found to be genuine refugees will be resettled in Israel and that his government is adding 45 people to the office that assesses refugee applications. So far, says the UNHCR, Israel has only accepted ten from Eritrea and Sudan.
Last week Kagame, in his first public comments on the issue, promised any new deal with Israel would be implemented according to international law. However those who went under the previous arrangement say their rights were discarded as soon as they arrived.
Unwelcome in Rwanda
“We landed in Rwanda, got off the plane … someone who worked at the airport took our documents and we asked them ‘why?’" recalled Isayas*. "They answered that they would give us something else, but they never give us any other documents.”
“After you leave Israel no-one knows who you are … they put us in a jail that they called a hotel, a guard watched us so that we wouldn’t leave. But the State of Israel said that you could receive documents and receive asylum and that there would be a good life -- like a dream.”
Another interviewee claimed that a local official told him that the Israeli immigration authority paid them if they confiscated the asylum seekers’ temporary documents and returned them to Israel.
Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority did not respond to a request for comment on this claim or the research report generally.
Birger, one of the co-authors, told i24NEWS the accounts of the interviewees’ fleeting time in Rwanda reveal a pattern.
“[An official] takes them to a hotel and says you can stay here for two nights, three nights. The travel document they get from Israel is taken from them. Some of them even get robbed or the money is getting taken away from them,” she said.
“What they said in Israel is that they have [in Rwanda] the UN and that you can claim asylum there. But there’s not,” another interviewee who was later granted asylum in The Netherlands said.
After a few days they were forced into Uganda, usually by car but sometimes, like Tesfay, on foot.
Gabriel, who has been granted asylum in Germany, said that while crossing from Uganda they were chanced upon by a posse of Ugandan soldiers, who took the entire $3,500 given to him by Israel as well as $1,200 in personal savings.
After deciding to join the flow of migrants into Libya and onto Europe by boat, the route went through Sudan, where many reported near-constant solicitation of bribes and death threats. Several asylum seekers told the researchers that the police of their home country, Eritrea, were active in South Sudan and Sudan, and authorities in those countries frequently handed over compatriots to the regime from which they say they had fled in the first place.
In refugee parlance this is known as “refoulment” and avoiding it is a principle which drives Israel’s policy of sending migrants to third countries, because deporting them back to Eritrea would violate international law.
An unknown number also perished at sea in the surge of teeming boats that attempt to cross the Mediterranean to Europe each summer. According to Tesfay, whose full testimony was shared with i24NEWS: “Ten people from Israel went into the boat, only three left … I don’t know their names.”
Earlier in January a spokesman for the UNHCR in Italy said they had interviewed 83 people who shared the same stories as those told in the Israeli report, including many who reported “that people travelling with them had died en route to Libya.”
In light of the accounts it has gathered, UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said that the UN body “is seriously concerned over Israel’s plans.”
A spokeswoman for the organization in Rwanda told i24NEWS that “due to the lack of clarity concerning its implementation, it has been very difficult for UNHCR to follow up and systematically monitor the situation of people relocated to these African countries and ensure that their human rights … are respected.”
*the names used in the report are pseudonyms
Jacob Atkins is a journalist and web editor for i24NEWS English. Follow him on Twitter.
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