Rwanda has said its “doors remain open” to African immigrants in need of a home even as it continues to deny a controversial deal with Israel to have refugees relocated from Tel Aviv.
The Rwandan government issued the statement on Monday night following protests by African refugees and asylum seekers outside its embassy in Tel Aviv, urging Kigali not to accept those deported from Israel.
According to media reports in Israel, more than 20,000 immigrants mainly from Eritrea and Sudan Monday protested the move by the Tel Aviv to deport 40,000-or so African refugees, a move criticised by human rights groups.
Strapped in chains, and carrying placards reading “We are human beings!”, “Remember your history!” and “Deportation to Rwanda = Death sentence”, the immigrants staged a mock refugee auction in front of the Rwandan embassy.
Earlier reports indicated that Rwanda and Uganda had agreed to take them in but later denied the deal after the deportation came under scrutiny by human rights groups.
According to reports on the deal, Israel was to pay each immigrant between $3,500 and $5,000 to leave with the recipient government receiving $5,000 per deportee.
But Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ms Louise Mushikiwabo insisted that Rwanda had no such deal with Israel.
Ms Mushikiwabo, in the statement, said Rwanda would contribute “as much as possible” to issues of Africans who find themselves on the treacherous road of exile in its open door policy for refugees, a subtly-veiled indication that those being asked to leave Israel are welcome.
“Rwanda’s position on migrants, wherever they may originate from, was informed and shaped by a sentiment of compassion towards African brothers and sisters who are today perishing in high seas, sold on the markets like cattle or expelled from the countries in which they sought shelter,” she said.
“Rwanda is ready to help in whatever limited way it could, by welcoming anyone arriving at its borders in need of a home, voluntarily and without any constraint.”
“In reference to the rumours 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. In this regard, Rwanda’s policy vis-à-vis Africans in need of a home, temporary or permanent, within our country's means, remains “open doors”,” the statement said.
In the past, Kigali had admitted that there were talks with Tel Aviv on the issue of African immigrants but later said there was no signed agreement in place.
However, the over 40,000 refugees who Israel calls ‘infiltrators’ say they are convinced that the ‘third country’ mentioned in the deportation notice they received is either Rwanda or Uganda.
Kampala too has vehemently denied any such deal exists, despite rights groups stating that the two countries have in the past accepted the refugees from Israel.
“We are here today to demonstrate against the arrangement between Israel and Rwanda to deport us for money,” Halefom Sultan, a 33-year-old Eritrean refugee who has been in Israel since 2009 told the media on Monday.
“We cannot go back to Eritrea, and Israel knows this, but we should not have to go to Rwanda. Israel has the ability and responsibility to give us safety,” he said.
In a letter by representatives of the refugees addressed to the Rwandan ambassador in Tel Aviv and seen by The EastAfrican, they urged the Rwandan government to “cancel the deal with Israel” as it violates their rights.
“We plead with you to accept our request and cancel the agreement reached with Israel that enables our forced deportation,” the letter said.
“We kindly ask that your government will grant refugee status to our brethren who have already been sent to Rwanda.”
According to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, African immigrants served with a deportation notice that described the ‘third country’ they would be relocated to but failed to mention its name.
“We wish to inform you that Israel has signed agreements that enable you to leave to a safe third country which will receive you and give you a residence permit which will allow you to work and ensure you are not repatriated to your country of origin,” the notice said as quoted by Haaretz.
“The country you are going to is one that has made great progress over the last decade, absorbing thousands of returning residents and migrants from various African countries there is stability in this country which has enabled development in many areas, including education, medicine and infrastructure,” it added.
The immigrants have until March this year to go back to their countries or be sent to prison or repatriated forcibly.
Israel said it would pay a one-way ticket for those who voluntarily leave, according to Haaretz.
“Our representatives will accompany you through the entire process up to your flight. You can address all your questions to them. You will be given $3,500 before boarding the plane, along with an entrance visa to the country of destination,” the notice said as quoted by Haaretz.
"Upon arrival you will be met by a local team which will accompany you during the first few days there. It will take you to a prearranged hotel, where you will meet local representatives who will explain the choices you have and help you start your adjustment.”