Inside Israel’s Secret Program to Get Rid of African Refugees

They were promised asylum somewhere closer to home. Then they were discarded — often in a war zone.

JUNE 27, 2017

KIGALI, Rwanda — The man picked Afie Semene and the 11 other Eritreans on the flight from Tel Aviv out of the stream of disembarking passengers as if he already had their faces memorized. He welcomed them to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, and introduced himself as John. He was a Rwandan immigration officer, he explained, there to help smooth their arrival. He collected the travel documents each of them had been issued in Israel and led them past the immigration counter where the rest of the passengers from their flight queued. Nobody stopped them. Nothing was stamped.

They paused briefly at the luggage carousel to scoop up their bags. In the nearly seven years Semene had lived in Israel, he filled an apartment with furniture and kitchen supplies. But when officials there summoned him to a detention facility for asylum-seekers, he had distributed much of what he owned among his friends, unsure if he would ever return. Now his suitcase contained little besides clothes.

The group exited the airport into the humid Rwandan night and crowded into a waiting pickup. The luggage followed in a second truck. The small convoy wound its way through lush, hilly Kigali, past the fenced campus of the regional polytechnic, and into a quiet neighborhood several miles south of the airport. They came to a stop in front of a house the color of a pistachio nut, its second story ringed with white-trimmed porches. Dawn was already breaking as the new arrivals were shown to bedrooms inside. As he fell asleep, Semene still remembers the feeling of relief wash over him. John would return the next day to help them begin their asylum applications, he thought. Maybe he would arrive with the papers granting them refugee status already in hand.

There would be no visas. No work permits. No asylum. None of the things Israeli authorities had promised the 12 Eritreans when they had agreed to relocate to Rwanda a few weeks prior.

Instead, the next day brought new despair: There would be no visas. No work permits. No asylum. None of the things Israeli authorities had promised the 12 Eritreans when they had agreed to relocate to Rwanda a few weeks prior. Instead, John offered to smuggle them into neighboring Uganda, which he told them was a “free nation.” “If you live here, you can’t leave,” Semene recalled John saying of Rwanda. “It’s a tight country. Let me advise you, as your brother, you need to go to Uganda.”

They would need to sneak across the border, since they had no proof of legal entry into Rwanda. (The Israeli laissez-passers had gone unstamped at the Kigali airport the night before, an oversight that now felt suspicious.) But John told them not to worry; he could easily get them into Uganda for a fee of $250. “I have everything,” he said. “Contacts with the government over there. Contacts with the Israeli government. If something happens, I call the Israeli government and they do something for you.”

The alternative, John said, was to remain in the Kigali house, where they would be under constant surveillance. They would have to pay rent, but without documentation, they would not be allowed to work. Semene and the others understood that John was not really giving them a choice. Everyone agreed to the plan.

A few hours later, a van pulled up outside the house and the Eritreans piled in. Several miles from the border with Uganda, the vehicle came to a stop and John urged them out onto the side of the road. It was the last they would see of him.

Semene had made an even more treacherous crossing once before, paying smugglers to ferry him across the Sinai Desert from Egypt into Israel. Under fire from Egyptian border guards, he sprinted the final yards to safety. He had hoped it would be the last time he would ever have to cross a border illegally. But seven years later, feeling betrayed by an Israeli government he had once turned to for safety, he slipped quietly and unofficially into Uganda.

Hundreds of African asylum-seekers stage a protest along the sea front in Tel Aviv on Jan. 15, 2014. (Photo credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

For decades after its founding in 1948, Israel welcomed refugees from outside the Jewish faith. The country was an early signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. In his first official act as prime minister in 1977, Menachem Begin granted refuge to 66 Vietnamese who had been rescued at sea by an Israeli ship. During a visit to the United States later that year, he recalled the St. Louis — a ship loaded with more than 900 European Jews who attempted to flee Germany in 1939 — to explain his decision. TheSt. Louis’s passengers were denied permission to disembark in Cuba, the United States, and Canada and ultimately returned to Europe. A quarter of the passengers are thought to have died in the Holocaust.

“They were nine months at sea, traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused,” Begin said. “We have never forgotten the lot of our people … And therefore it was natural that my first act as prime minister was to give those people a haven in the land of Israel.”

In 2007, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert echoed Begin’s act when he granted temporary residency permits to nearly 500 Sudanese asylum-seekers. But as the number of African migrants swelled in subsequent years, Israel’s receptiveness began to flag. The vast majority of the new arrivals were fleeing long-standing authoritarian regimes in Eritrea and Sudan. They chose Israel for many reasons: because it was a democracy, because it was easier to reach than Europe or — for many Sudanese — because it was an adversary of their own government. They hoped that the enemy of their enemy would look kindly on them.

But Israeli authorities soon became overwhelmed. According to the Ministry of Interior, nearly 65,000 foreign nationals — the vast majority from Africa — reached Israel between 2006 and 2013. As the government struggled to accommodate the newcomers, many languished in poor and overcrowded neighborhoods in southern Tel Aviv. Dozens squatted in a park across the street from the city’s main bus station for weeks on end. A handful of high-profile incidents — including the alleged rape of an 83-year-old woman by an Eritrean asylum-seeker in 2012 — dominated media coverage and fueled unease among Israelis, many of whom already fretted that refugees were taking their jobs.

African asylum-seekers sleep in Tel Aviv’s Levinski Park during a protest against Israel’s immigration policies on Feb. 5, 2014. (Photo credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

By the time Benjamin Netanyahu secured a third term as prime minister in 2013, the tensions had hardened into outright hostility. That year, Israel sealed off its border with Egypt and implemented a raft of policies aimed at making life more difficult for asylum-seekers already in Israel. Then it began secretly pressuring Eritreans and Sudanese to leave for unnamed third countries, a shadowy relocation effort in which Semene and thousands like him are now ensnared.

Israeli officials have kept nearly everything else about this effort secret, even deflecting requests for more information from UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency. But a year-long investigation by Foreign Policy that included interviews with multiple Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers as well as people involved at various stages of the relocation process — including one person who admitted to helping coordinate illegal border crossings — reveals an opaque system of shuffling asylum-seekers from Israel, via Rwanda or Uganda, into third countries, where they are no longer anyone’s responsibility.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.