I was left with nothing”: “Voluntary” departures of asylum seekers from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda

Published: 8 Sep 2015

A new report launched today by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) exposes how Israeli transfers of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda leaves them without status and vulnerable to exploitation. “Our research shows that Israel is not only failing to respect its own obligations under international law, but is directly increasing the vulnerability of these asylum seekers and contributing to migration flows to other African countries and to the EU,” said IRRI’s Executive Director Andie Lambe.

The report, “I was left with nothing”: “Voluntary” departures of asylum seekers from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda, is based on interviews with over 20 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who were sent from Israel to Uganda and Rwanda between February 2014 and May 2015. Despite claims that the departures are voluntary, all of the interviewees stated that they had left as a result of their detention or the threat thereof, and because they felt that they would not be able to acquire a legal status that would allow them to lead a normal, stable life in Israel. They chose to leave not because they wanted to go to the third countries offered, but because they could not go home. In the words of one Eritrean asylum seeker: “They said: ‘you can either go to your country or to Rwanda.’ I said: ‘if I could go to my country, why would I even be in Israel to begin with?’”

Promised by the Israeli authorities that they would be accepted in these “third countries” and be able to stay and work legally, in reality they received no status in their destinations. The travel documents provided by the Israeli authorities were taken from them when they arrived in Uganda or Rwanda, leaving them undocumented. They were then either smuggled out of the country, forced to live below the radar without legal status, and/or told to hide the fact that they came from Israel.

With no legal status, those transferred remain vulnerable to arrest and other types of exploitation, and are unable to find work or sustain themselves. As one person from Darfur who was transferred from Israel to Uganda explained: “the fact that this is Africa doesn’t mean that this is your home.”

As a result, most leave Rwanda and Uganda shortly after arriving, with many trying to make their way to Europe. One Eritrean who was transferred from Israel to Rwanda and then smuggled into Uganda, explained: “Out of 16 people [who came on the same flight] I am the only one still here. They are all in Libya…You go to Juba, from Juba, Sudan – it is dangerous. I don’t want to go there.” Indeed, news reports indicate that some Eritreans who had taken part in this programme were later killed by ISIS in Libya (See page 23 of the full report).

According to Israeli authorities, as of late April 2015 more than 1,500 Eritreans and Sudanese asylum seekers had left the country to two “third countries”, which Israel currently refuses to publicly identify. Contrary to the Israeli authorities’ rhetoric, departures from Israel are neither voluntary, nor ensure the safety of those transferred but are in fact often the starting point for a dangerous journey that not all survive. “The Israeli government must either cease these transfers or ensure that they are conducted on the basis of transparent agreements that comply with UNHCR standards,” said Andie Lambe.

Read the press coverage of the report

Programmes: Rights in Exile
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Uganda, Rwanda
Type: Library, Paper