Rwanda and Uganda will start receiving a large number of African refugees deported from Israel “in a matter of weeks,” a court in Tel Aviv was told on Tuesday.
During the hearing of a case filed by human-rights organisations seeking to block the deportation of refugees, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, State Prosecutor Shosh Shmueli told the High Court of Justice in Tel Aviv that the Israeli government plans to begin deporting asylum seekers within the “next few weeks,” according to a report by Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
The official said that the government will begin implementing the agreements signed with the recipient countries.
Both Kigali and Kampala have admitted working with Israel on the issue of African refugees, but little has been revealed of what the agreements entail. According to reports, both countries have already started receiving African refugees, but mass deportations of the close to 40,000 are about to start.
When the High Court president Esther Hayut asked about the schedule for the deportations the state prosecutor replied, “Very soon.” The Judge asked “How soon?” to which the state prosecutor replied, “Weeks.”
Seven judges are hearing the petition. Human-rights groups are seeking to compel Israel to halt the deportations and scrap a law requiring asylum seekers to deposit 20 per cent of their earnings into an account that they will only be given access to upon leaving Israel.
The lobbies say that the stringent rules on refugees set by Tel Aviv have left many of them in poverty and distress, which is a violation of their human rights.
Rwanda and Uganda’s decision to accept African migrants deported from Israel is increasingly coming under scrutiny, as rights groups accuse the East African countries of being complicit in a scheme to trade off unwanted refugees in an undisclosed deal.
In Kigali, President Paul Kagame has been urged to stay clear of Israel’s controversial plans.
Rwanda has in the past received an unknown number of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants under an agreement with Israel, but Adi Drori Avraham, advocacy co-ordinator for Aid Organisation for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF) said it should now bar those forced out of Israel.
Ms Drori-Avraham told The EastAfrican that Rwanda must rejecting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan, regardless of the economic or political promises the deal offers.
Rights groups say that Israel offers Rwanda and Uganda $5,000 for each reject refugee.
“Rwanda and Israel share a complicated history that binds them. But friends should influence each other positively, and Rwanda is in the best position to tell Israel that it can deal with this on its own,” she said.
'Refugees’ own good'
After President Kagame and Mr Netanyahu met in Nairobi two weeks ago, it was reported that Israel was going to open an embassy in Kigali.
But it has now been revealed that the two leaders agreed to amend the previous agreement. According to Haaretz, Rwanda will now accept asylum seekers deported against their will. Previously, only willing refugees were deported.
Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Ministry Louise Mushikiwabo declined to comment on the matter, promising to release the information on future developments.
Israel maintains that the agreement is for the refugees’ own good, because it comes with economic incentives and benefits and it only affects those who entered Israel illegally and not recognised as asylum seekers.
Tel Aviv says it wants to shut down Holot Camp in Negev Desert, where the refugees are held in what human-rights groups say are horrible conditions. The decision to deport them has been met by protests.
An Israeli member of parliament, Mossi Raz, tweeted that he hopes “Kagame says no to Netanyahu’s persuasion.”
Rights agencies have pointed out that there is growing resentment for African migrants in Israel, and that xenophobia is being fuelled by politicians. The Minister of Culture and Sports, Miri Regev, said in 2012 that “Sudanese are a cancer in our body,” which was followed up by inflammatory comments by former interior minister Eli Yishai, who vowed to make African migrants’ lives “miserable until they leave.”
“There are asylum seekers from Georgia and Ukraine in Israel. I cannot say that Israel is treating them well, but it does not keep them in detention centres,” Ms Drori-Avraham said.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, told The EastAfrican that Kigali has not responded to requests for information regarding the arrangement between the countries.
Although it is believed that thousands have already been deported to Rwanda, the UN agency is currently in contact with only seven individuals who arrived in Rwanda between 2014 and 2015.
“UNHCR does not have specific information on how many have arrived over the past years and if they are still here and settled within Rwanda,” said Erika Fitzpatrick of UNHCR Rwanda.
“UNHCR is concerned that these persons have not found adequate safety or a durable solution to their plight and many have subsequently attempted dangerous onward movements within Africa or to Europe.”
Migrants from Libya
Meanwhile, Rwanda’s offer to take in as many as 30,000 African migrants from Libya has opened up a debate on whether the country has the resources to accommodate the refugees recently reported to be subjected to slave trade.
Kigali has said it will not hold the African refugees coming from Libya in camps but rather integrate them in society and offer them economic benefits.
But the offer has left observers wondering whether Rwanda will find the resources needed to resettle the refugees and accord them employment when even citizens struggle to find jobs.
Officials did not offer details when contacted, but the Foreign Minister recently told The New Times, that the government is willing to give as many as 30,000 refugees a “normal life.”
“We know that there is money available out there that we can mobilise for something like this. We also know some Rwandans that are happy to help. It’s a question of planning,” Ms Mushikiwabo was quoted as saying.
UNHCR said it had been kept in the dark over the developments, but it welcomed the move, saying it perfectly fits its “Alternative to Camps” strategy. The scheme introduced last year has benefited more than 30,000 Burundian refugees who left the camps to live within the Rwandan society.
Ms Mushikiwabo said that Rwanda had been horrified by reports that refugees have been held and turned into slaves.
More than 400,000 African migrants mainly from Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia have for the past years crossed through Libya to the Mediterranean Sea in a bid to reach Europe. Many, however, end up being held in refugee camps across Libya.
The UNHCR has welcomed a move by the Libyan government to open a transit centre for unaccompanied children and vulnerable refugees and called on countries to accept hosting them.
Rwanda says it envisions economic inclusion of all refugees it hosts by 2020.
The European Union has offered to support Kigali’s efforts. Neven Mimica, EU Commissioner for International Co-operation and Development, met with President Kagame on the sidelines of the African Union-European Union Summit in Abidjan and discussed the deal.