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Israel: African asylum-seeker deportations and “voluntary” transfers are forced and illegal

African migrants demonstrate in Tel Aviv on April 9, 2018, against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers. Only days before, a solution had been announced that would regularise the situation for many migrants and end the potential forced deportation of thousands of others. But in a stunning turnaround on April 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled the agreement with the UN refugee agency, bowing to pressure from his right-wing base to scrap the deal. / AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The Israeli government’s transfers of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers is cruel and illegal, Amnesty International said today, as it released a new report titled Forced and Unlawful: Israel’s Deportations of Eritrean and Sudanese Asylum-Seekers to Uganda.

In October 2017, Israel announced that it would start deporting Eritrean and Sudanese nationals to an unnamed “third country” in Africa that had agreed to receive them, widely reported to be Uganda and Rwanda. However, the Israeli government was unable to confirm which countries had agreed to cooperate in deportation agreements and the Supreme Court ordered the suspension of all deportations of Sudanese and Eritrean nationals. However, “voluntary” transfers of these nationals, which Israel has been carrying out since 2013, have continued to Uganda.

Amnesty International has documented transfers that do not meet standards for voluntariness and are cruel and illegal. Israeli officials have issued documents and provided verbal assurances to deportees that they will receive a residence permit in Uganda to allow them to work and protect them from forcible return to their home country. The Ugandan government has consistently denied the existence of any agreement for the reception of deportees from Israel, implicitly denying the presence of asylum-seekers arriving from Israel in their territory and refusing to acknowledge any obligations towards them.

Once in Uganda, deported asylum-seekers interviewed by Amnesty International said they found the Israeli government’s promises to be empty. Instead of being granted a residence permit, as promised, they were stuck with an irregular migration status, leaving them at risk of detention, without the possibility to work and the risk of forcible return to their country of origin in violation of the principle of non-refoulement.

“Israel’s dysfunctional asylum system has left Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers in limbo for years. These people, who came to Israel seeking safety, have been met with prolonged detention and violations of their basic human rights to asylum, health and safety. They are now facing the equally bleak prospects of being deported to an unknown country or being sent back to the persecution from which they fled,” said Charmain Mohamed, Head of Refugee and Migrant Rights.

“We are calling on the Israeli government to halt these procedures, grant asylum-seekers access to a fair and effective refugee status determination procedure and a pathway for legal status in Israel.”

A stark choice

In this report, Amnesty International conducted 30 in depth individual interviews with Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, including people deported to Uganda and Rwanda from Israel, some of whom were still in Israel, and one man who had been forcibly returned to Sudan.

The report documents how Israel had given many asylum seekers a ‘choice’ between deportation to a third country, return to their countries of origin or indefinite detention.

Emanuel* is an Eritrean asylum-seeker who spoke to Amnesty International in March 2018 from Saharonim prison in Israel where he had been detained since November 2017 for refusing to go to Rwanda.

He said:

“Every day, all the time, the prison guards and the Interior Ministry officers tell me that it would be better for me to go to Rwanda. They say: ‘If you don’t leave for Rwanda, you will leave Israel in a coffin’…. But I have friends in Rwanda who tell me not to come, that the situation there is very difficult. I prefer to die in Eritrea, so that my mother can visit my grave, than to go to Rwanda or Uganda. I have nothing there.”

Amnesty International also documented several cases of asylum-seekers who had been deported from Israel with promises of residency and work permits, only to find that none of this was available. None of the asylum-seekers interviewed by Amnesty International received a residence permit upon arrival in Uganda, or any other document allowing them to stay and work.

Musa*, an asylum-seeker from Sudan, was deported to Uganda in 2017. He told Amnesty International:

“When I arrived at the hotel, a Sudanese man showed up. He told me that if I gave him US$400 he could give me papers to stay in Uganda. I gave him the money but never saw him again.”

Amnesty International says that the transfers of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers from Israel, even if the government of Israel considers them “voluntary”, are illegal under international law as they violate the principle of non-refoulement**.

The report also highlights how the Israeli asylum system is intentionally dysfunctional and difficult, and the chances of finding protection in Israel are close to zero for almost all asylum claims.

Amnesty International gathered information on the cases of 262 Eritrean asylum-seekers who tried repeatedly to submit their asylum application between 2016 and 2018. Most of them had tried one to four times, but 18 people said that they had tried five or six times; and 14 people said they had tried seven or more times, including seven people who said they had tried 10 times or more.

Despite the Israeli government’s claim that Eritreans and Sudanese asylum seekers are “economic migrants”, most Eritrean and Sudanese nationals are seeking protection from persecution and other serious human rights violations. The acceptance rate in European Union member states is 90% for Eritrean asylum-seekers and 55% for Sudanese asylum-seekers, while in Israel it’s less than half a percent.

“Israel is one of the most prosperous countries in the region, but it is going out of its way to shirk its responsibility to provide refuge to people fleeing war and persecution and who are already on its territory,” said Charmain Mohamed. “They are even trying to transfer that responsibility to Uganda and other countries who are already hosting some of the world’s largest refugee populations.”


*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

**The prohibition against transferring anyone to a country where they would be at real risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations; or where they would not be protected against such transfer.

On May 17, 2018, Amnesty International sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Uganda, Ruhakana Rugunda, asking for clarification on any discussions or agreements between Uganda and Israel currently underway. The letter summarized the findings of the report and requested further information about asylum seekers who have been deported to Uganda from Israel since 2013.

The organization sent a similar letter requesting further information and clarification from the Israeli government on June 1, 2018.