UNHCR appeals to Israel over forced relocations to Uganda

UNHCR appeals to Israel over forced relocations to Uganda - asylum seekers
Migrants from Eritrea and Sudan protesting Israel's refusal to grant them refugee status outside the U.S. COURTESY PHOTO

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has appealed to Israel to halt its policy of relocating Eritreans and Sudanese to sub-Saharan Africa.

The appeal comes after Israeli authorities gave the African asylum seekers a 90-day ultimatum to leave “to their country or to a third country,” or face jail sentences.

It has been reported that more than 4,000 asylum seekers forcefully removed from Israel, have been dumped in two African countries believed to be Uganda and Rwanda through the forced relocation that began in December 2013.

Media reports suggest that the three countries have cut a secret, high-level deal in which the African states accept refugees in return for arms, military training and other aid from Israel.

UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler says that people relocated by Israel risked their lives by taking dangerous onward journeys to Europe via Libya. The agency had interviewed 80 victims who included Eritrean refugees who suffered abuse, torture and extortion before risking their lives once again to cross the Mediterranean from Sub Saharan Africa where they had been dumped.

The refugees said they had traveled hundreds of kilometres through conflict zones in South Sudan, Sudan and Libya after being relocated by Israel, taking the thorny journey across the Mediterranean to Italy.

The interviews – all with adult males, some with family members still in Israel – took place between November 2015 and December 2017 in reception centres and informal settlements in the Rome area. All had entered Israel via the Sinai. In every case, they reported torture, mistreatment and extortion before reaching Israel.

Most said they had been transferred from Israel to a country in Africa and provided with a lump sum of USD 3,500 to cover the cost of airfare and other incentives for relocation. However, the situation on arrival was different to what most had expected and with little further support provided beyond accommodation on the first night. They reported feeling unsafe, as they were known to have money.

Some said that people travelling with them had died en route to Libya, where many experienced extortion and detention, as well as being subjected to abuse – including torture – and violence.

“UNHCR is seriously concerned over Israel’s plans announced on January 1st to forcibly relocate Eritreans and Sudanese to countries in Africa or have them face indefinite detention,” Spindler said in a statement released at a press conference in Geneva today.

The statement adds that the plans may eventually target families and those with pending asylum claims, or that asylum seekers might be taken to the airport in handcuffs, are particularly alarming.

They include tens of thousands of Africans that entered Israel before it erected a fence along its border with Egypt. Many of the migrants say they fled conflict and persecution and seek refugee status. However, Israel calls them “infiltrators” and mostly economic migrants whose numbers threaten its Jewish character.

In an article written recently by Aljazeera, Musgun Gebar, one of the rejected asylum seekers said that he was being held in an immigration detention camp in the Negev Desert called Holot, when, officials there informed him that he had three options.

If he liked, he could stay indefinitely in the camp. A second option was to go back to Eritrea, the country he had fled five years before. Or, he could agree to take USD 3,500 and depart for a third country of the Israeli government’s choosing.

Gebar didn’t hesitate. He took the third option which led him to Entebbe from Tel Aviv, a journey that lasted 15 hours. This flight to Uganda is what ended a dream that had pushed Gebar to travel on foot to Israel – a punishing journey across the Sahara and the Sinai that took more than a month.

“At a time when UNHCR and partners in the international community 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,” Spindler added.

There are some 27,000 Eritreans and 7,700 Sudanese in Israel. Since Israel took over refugee status determination from UNHCR in 2009, only ten Eritreans and one Sudanese have been recognized as refugees. Another 200 Sudanese, all from Darfur, were granted humanitarian status in Israel and there was an announcement that another 300 will follow. Israel has not received any Eritreans or Sudanese since May 2016.

Spindler said that UNHCR stands ready to work with Israel to find alternative solutions for the protection needs of asylum seekers, in line with international standards. This includes resettlement out of Israel, as has happened previously.

However, the Ugandan government has denied reaching a deal with Israel to host thousands of African asylum seekers who are forcibly thrown out of Isreal. State Minister for Foreign Affairs Henry Oryem Okello dubbed it false news.