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.
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. The St. 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.
It begins with furtive promises by Israeli authorities of asylum and work opportunities in Rwanda and Uganda. Once the Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers reach Kigali or Entebbe, where Uganda’s international airport is located, they describe a remarkably similar ordeal: They meet someone who presents himself as a government agent at the airport, bypass immigration, move to a house or hotel that quickly feels like a prison, and are eventually pressured to leave the country. For the Eritreans, it is from Rwanda to Uganda. For Sudanese, it is from Uganda to South Sudan or Sudan. The process appears designed not just to discard unwanted refugees, but to shield the Israeli, Rwandan, and Ugandan governments from any political or legal accountability.
While a handful of the Eritreans and Sudanese have managed to maneuver or mislead their way into asylum in Rwanda or Uganda, and dozens more live in a stateless limbo in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, most have given in to the pressure to leave those countries, making dangerous illegal border crossings that leave them vulnerable to blackmail and physical abuse at the hands of smugglers and security forces. Some have continued north to Sudan or Libya in an effort to reach Europe. A few have been captured and killed by Islamic State fighters or drowned on the treacherous Mediterranean crossing.
Officials across several relevant ministries in Israel, Rwanda, and Uganda all issued denials or refused repeated requests for comment. But the nearly identical experiences of asylum-seekers arriving in Rwanda and Uganda, as well as their ability to bypass standard immigration channels and occasionally procure official documents from their handlers, suggests a level of government knowledge, if not direct involvement, in all three capitals.
A traffic circle in Kigali, Rwanda, where Semene arrived in 2014. (Photo credit: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)
Semene fled Eritrea in 2007, after four years in the country’s military. Service there is compulsory and it can stretch on indefinitely. Instead of training, conscripts are often forced to work on their commanders’ private farms or for state-owned businesses. The conditions are so restrictive and the compensation so negligible that in 2016 a U.N. Human Rights Council report on the country determined that “Eritrean officials have committed the crime of enslavement … in a persistent, widespread and systematic manner.” During his four years of service, Semene, a small, slight man with an easy smile, was allowed to visit his family only once.
Semene is a pseudonym. Life under military dictatorship instilled in him a deep sense of caution, and he is hesitant to share too many details about his past in case security forces target his family members who still live in Eritrea. Risking imprisonment and possible execution there, he ran — first to a refugee camp in Sudan, where he faced constant shortages of food and water, and then to Egypt. Finding the environment for refugees there only marginally better, he paid smugglers $2,800 to take him across Sinai into Israel. He knew little about the country, except that it was a democracy. “Simply, I try my luck,” he said.
And finally, luck seemed to be on his side. In 2008, Israeli authorities issued him a visa that was renewable every six months. He found a job stocking groceries at a Tel Aviv shop, and applied for official refugee status. “I adopt the place,” he told me, including learning Hebrew. “I adopt their food. I know the language. I see Israel as my country.”
Thousands more asylum-seekers like Semene continued to arrive — mostly from Eritrea, but also from Sudan, including hundreds fleeing a government-perpetrated genocide in the country’s Darfur region. By 2012, a leading Israeli politician was denouncing the asylum-seekers as “a cancer in our body” and residents of south Tel Aviv were organizing protests against them. That same year, the minister of interior suggested making “their lives miserable” in order to dissuade even more from coming.
One way the Israeli government did just that was by erecting a sprawling detention center for asylum-seekers in the middle of the Negev Desert. Operated by the Israel Prison Service (IPS), Holot — which means “sand” in Hebrew — now holds more than 3,000 male asylum-seekers, who had previously been allowed to live and (unofficially) work while they awaited a decision on their refugee applications. Most detainees said they learned they had been randomly chosen to relocate to Holot only when they attempted to renew their visas. They were given days to report to the facility, where they can legally be held for up to a year. Some politicians are pushing to make the sentence indefinite.
Asylum-seekers take part in a day of protest at the Holot detention center in the southern Negev desert on Feb. 17, 2014. (Photo credit: ILIA YEFIMOVICH /Getty Images)
African asylum-seekers exit the Holot detention facility on Aug. 25, 2015. (Photo credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Sudanese asylum-seekers demonstrate against the Israeli government's decision to seal the border with Egypt. (Photo credit: GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
Semene was summoned to Holot in early 2014. “It’s really a prison,” is how he described what appears on the outside to be a beleaguered tent city. I made two visits to the facility, though I was not allowed to enter. Instead, I sat with detainees outside the chain-link fence topped with razor wire, as they described conditions inside. They live 10 to a room and though they can come and go from the facility, they are required to check in with authorities once per day. Failure to do so earns a short stint in a nearby maximum-security prison. Residents are not allowed to work or even to bring food brought by friends or family members into Holot. With the nearest town hours away, they spend most of their time sitting at the makeshift restaurants they have constructed near the entrance to the camp. IPS authorities regularly tear them down, but the detainees keep rebuilding them.
To Semene, the restrictions of Holot, combined with the monotony of life there, seemed designed to break the occupants — men who had previously survived murderous raids, the deprivations of refugee camps, and, in some cases, torture. There is limited assistance for people managing chronic health conditions or in obvious need of mental healthcare. Instead, they are left to wander the desert, overseen only by their fellow inmates. (IPS did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) Semene remembers becoming so distressed by the treatment one day that he began pleading with a guard: “We are human. Treat us as a human,” he said.
Then, after he had been locked away for seven months, the authorities seemed to offer him a lifeline: Leaflets from the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority started to appear within the facility, saying that Israel had secured an arrangement with other countries willing to accept asylum-seekers. Anyone who agreed to a transfer would receive travel documents, a free one-way plane ticket to a yet-unnamed country, and $3,500. “On the first day of arrival in the country, you will be placed in a hotel. Everything that you need — work and living permit — will be given to you,” the flyer read, according to a translation provided by the UNHCR office in Tel Aviv.
Soon, the guards at Holot began whispering to the asylum-seekers that the third countries were Rwanda for Eritreans and Uganda for the Sudanese. There was no explanation for the division. The Israeli government has never officially confirmed the two countries involved, explaining in various legal settings that the agreements prevent them from doing so. “We do not comment in the media on those issues or on our relations with third countries,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in an email.
Semene was among those who jumped at the opportunity. “You close your eyes and choose,” was how he explained it to me. In the weeks leading up to his departure in late 2014, he was summoned to meet with an Israeli immigration officer, who presented him with an Israeli travel document filled out with his name, date of birth, and — though he had no passport — a passport number. The laissez-passer was valid for two weeks, from Dec. 14 to Dec. 28, 2014. The official also showed him a letter, allegedly from the Rwandan government, guaranteeing that he would be granted a one-month tourist visa when he arrived in the country. The official handed over the promised $3,500 in U.S. dollars.
Semene wondered why he was getting a one-month tourist visa when he had been told he would be receiving asylum. He also wondered why the laissez-passer was valid for only two weeks. He said he quizzed the official about both apparent discrepancies, but was assured any issues would be sorted out when he arrived in Kigali. Not quite convinced, he took photos of the documents with his cell phone, which he later showed me. A few days later, he received a call telling him to get ready. He would be leaving on Dec. 22. Despite his growing skepticism of everything the Israeli authorities were telling him, he decided to approach the trip with guarded optimism. It had been more than seven years since he fled a life of endless military service in Eritrea and more than half a year since he’d been incarcerated in Israel. He wanted desperately to believe that Rwanda would be the place where he would finally be free.
A group of Eritrean asylum-seekers inside Israel's Holot detention facility on Feb. 17, 2014. (Photo credit: ILIA YEFIMOVICH /Getty Images)
The pistachio-colored house where Semene and dozens of other Eritreans were held in Kigali sits at the end of a deeply gashed dirt road. About 50 yards away, down a steep embankment, there is a small kiosk painted Coca-Cola red, where men from the neighborhood often gather to drink sodas and chat. One day last spring, I stopped by to see if they had ever noticed any unusual activity at the house atop the hill. Through a translator, they explained that groups of “foreigners” regularly stayed there. Sometimes they could be spotted pacing on the white-trimmed balconies. None ever seemed to venture outside the house’s heavy black gate and they were always gone after a few days.
Later, I trudged up the hill and knocked on that gate. It swung open to reveal two young Rwandan men lazily sweeping the driveway. I asked if I could speak to the owner. They indicated that he wasn’t home, but passed along a phone number. When I dialed it, a man who identified himself only as Robert acknowledged that the house was indeed his. Yes, he intermittently hosted visitors from Eritrea. In fact, a group had just left a few days earlier.
He explained that he had begun renting out the house to unknown groups of foreigners more than a year earlier after a friend of his — a driver who works at the airport — called to see if he could host some people who would be spending a few days in the country. Robert agreed, he said, because the house was vacant at the time. Since then he has accommodated a handful of groups, he told me. The process is always the same: The driver friend calls him a few days before a new party is set to arrive and Robert sends workers to prepare the house for them. The foreigners stay for a few days — never more than three — and then leave. He didn’t know to where. He had never met any of them.
When I started to press Robert for more details — How much was he paid? Did the driver work for the government? — he grew cagey and insisted we meet in person. We set a time for the following day. When I called back to confirm the location, he hung up on me and declined each of my subsequent calls.
It is unclear whether the driver friend is John, the man who picked Semene and the other Eritreans up from the airport, or someone working for him. It is also unclear whether John is actually an immigration official or just posing as one. But in a country as notoriously repressive as Rwanda it is almost inconceivable that anyone regularly bypassing immigration isn’t operating with the blessing of senior government officials. (My calls from different lines to a number allegedly belonging to John have gone unanswered for months.)
What happens to those asylum-seekers who refuse John’s offer to be smuggled into Uganda is yet another mystery. Kabtom Bereket, an Eritrean who arrived separately from Semene in July 2014, told me that several members of his six-person group asked to visit the UNHCR offices in Kigali immediately after they arrived at the house from the airport. John refused their request, Bereket said, telling them, “We are immigration. There is the security on the gate. You stay here.” No one in the group was allowed out of the house, according to Bereket, which is also a pseudonym, until they all left to cross illegally into Uganda.
Some Eritreans have managed to escape the house. According to documents from the UNHCR office in Tel Aviv, Rwandan authorities have arrested at least four of the asylum-seekers who attempted to stay in Kigali on charges of lacking documentation. Others, though UNHCR won’t say how many, have approached UNHCR staff in Kigali for support, claiming to have relocated from Israel. Of the at least 1,400 other asylum-seekers who have arrived in Kigali from Tel Aviv over the last three years — the figure Israeli officials provided in court — Semene is certain that the vast majority have been smuggled out of the country.
Across the border in Uganda, UNHCR officials haven’t heard of even a single successful asylum applicant among the Sudanese arriving directly from Tel Aviv or the Eritreans arriving from Rwanda, though they are aware of multiple rejections from among this pool. This is strange because Uganda has one of the most progressive refugee policies in the region. Nearly 3,300 Sudanese are currently registered as refugees in Uganda, according to the UNCHR office in Kampala. The problem seems to be exclusive to those being resettled from Israel. Sudanese I spoke to in Kampala said they have now learned not to mention Israel anywhere in their asylum applications.
Officials in the office of Uganda’s prime minister, which oversees the country’s immigration procedures, offered no explanation for the rejected asylum claims of migrants arriving via Israel. Rwandan officials do admit having discussed a deal with Israel to accept asylum-seekers, but say that no agreement was ever reached. It may be that the Ugandan and Rwandan governments do not want to answer questions about what they are receiving in exchange for accepting refugees. (Speculation among Israeli activists centers on weapons and cash.)
Unable to get asylum in Uganda, many Eritreans and Sudanese live in constant fear of the authorities. Within hours of his illegal scramble across the Rwandan border, in fact, Semene nearly landed behind bars. He and the other Eritreans in his group emerged from the borderlands thicket to find a van waiting on the Ugandan side that carried them the remaining 10 hours to Kampala. They arrived at a cheap hotel in the crowded, dusty area of downtown known as Old Kampala at 4 a.m. Five hours later, Ugandan security officials raided the hotel and arrested several of the asylum-seekers. By that point, however, Semene had already split off from the group and melted into the neighborhood, his doubts having turned into outright distrust over the course of the journey.
More than a year later, he spends most of his evenings in a local bar watching football matches or playing pool. It is a short walk from the apartment he shares with a rotating group of Eritrean refugees. Sometimes up to a dozen people cram into the one-room space. His world is now just a few blocks of Old Kampala, but he figures limiting his movement is the best way to avoid running into police officers or other security officials who might ask for his papers and then arrest him or demand a bribe when he is unable to produce them.
He is depressed, and also eaten up with resentment toward the Israeli government. This was not the life they promised him. “I am not safe here,” he said. “I am not safe anywhere.”
Ugandan police officers cordon off a crime scene in Kampala on March 17, 2017. (Photo credit: ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
The linchpins of this system of human smuggling — and key to establishing whether the Israeli, Ugandan, and Rwandan governments are officially involved in it — are the men who pressure new arrivals from Tel Aviv to forget the promise of asylum and to cross illegally into third countries. Hassan Ali is one such man. He agreed to meet me on the condition that I not reveal his real identity. A squat 32-year-old Darfuri refugee, he steered me off a crowded Kampala street into a fried chicken restaurant with low ceilings and a greasy, tiled floor. He chose a side table and spoke in a quiet, quivering voice lost easily in the lunchtime bustle. He was among the very first asylum-seekers in Israel to accept the proposed transfer to Uganda, he said. He had been in Israel since 2008 and sensed the mood toward asylum-seekers was growing increasingly hostile. He happened to have friends and family in Uganda, so when the offer came to relocate to Kampala in early 2014, he eagerly accepted.
But within weeks of his arrival, just as he was beginning to feel settled in his new life in the city, he started getting phone calls from a man he would identify only as Ismail. Ismail was also Sudanese and he needed Ali’s help. Would he be willing to meet with groups of new arrivals — mostly people Ali knew from his own time in Israel — and talk to them about resettling elsewhere? Ali is not sure how Ismail got his number or why he wanted Ali to be involved, but — for reasons he chose to keep vague — he decided he was willing to try. The requests from Ismail are relatively sporadic, but they have become more frequent. Ali estimates that he has now met with at least a dozen groups of asylum-seekers.
He usually joins them on their second day at an upscale hotel called Forest Cottages, where the Sudanese flown from Tel Aviv are brought from the airport. Unlike their Eritrean counterparts in Rwanda, they are offered a brief respite before the pressure to relocate begins. But when the time comes, Ali is the one who applies that pressure.
He starts by talking about how much the men must be missing their families after years — and in some cases decades — away from Sudan. Except now, in Uganda, they are so much closer to home than they were in Israel. Using Ismail’s connections, Ali says he can get them the rest of the way. For $200, he will arrange the paperwork and logistics to transport them safely to South Sudan, the buffer between Uganda and Sudan. For $100 more, he can get them to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
Both countries harbor significant dangers. Sudan remains a police state, and killing continues in Darfur, though at a lower level than before. South Sudan is mired in a bloody civil war that has killed tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people and forced 1.7 million to flee the country. But the new arrivals in Kampala are discombobulated and often poorly informed. Ali fuels their confusion by telling them that Ugandan officials will hound them, blackmail them, and potentially deport them. South Sudan, because of the chaos there, actually seems to some refugees like a much easier place to disappear or to begin another journey toward a country that might actually grant them asylum. The reasons other refugees chose to return to Sudan, despite the risk of arrest and torture, are much more straightforward: They believe their options are exhausted. They miss their homes. They want to see their families.
Ali has learned to manipulate these fears and emotions. “I say, ‘Welcome to Africa. If you tell me you’re going to pass to Sudan, you come here, you will pass.’ They’re very happy,” he said. Dozens of people have taken Ali up on his offer, he says, at which point Ismail collects their information and money and hands it over to a man named George, the Ugandan minder who picked the new arrivals up at the airport — essentially the Ugandan version of John. Within hours of securing their agreement, George returns with individualized Ugandan travel documents stamped with South Sudanese entry visas.
I asked Ali about the level of government involvement in this scheme. After some prevarication, he conceded that Ugandan officials are not only aware of what is happening, but actively involved in pushing asylum-seekers from Israel into South Sudan. “This is the secret they don’t want to tell,” he said. But aside from the Ugandan travel documents he claims to have seen handed over to the asylum-seekers, he had little evidence to support his claims. That is, except for one additional piece of paper: a permit granting him temporary residence in Uganda.
At the beginning of our conversation, he had showed me a photo of the one-year legal residency permit George had secured for him from Uganda’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. None of the other Sudanese asylum-seekers I met had received anything similar from George, although several said they had asked for one. Ali only received the document, he acknowledged, in exchange for helping Ismail.
Before we parted ways, Ali offered to take me with him when the next group of Sudanese transfers arrived at Forest Cottages. But less than 10 minutes after we left the restaurant, he called to tell me the deal was off. Apparently, he had phoned Ismail immediately after our meeting and had been lambasted for talking to a foreign journalist. Ali pleaded that I not mention him to any government officials. He said I should forget his name and that we had ever met. I followed up with Ismail, whose phone number Ali had given me before we parted, but he stood me up for a meeting the next day and refused to answer additional calls.
The Ugandan government has consistently maintained it knows nothing about asylum-seekers being transferred from Israel, though reports of the arrivals from Tel Aviv abound in the local media. Fred Opolot, then the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told me in April 2015, “We’re making inquiries, but no one is giving us a clear lead.” Since then, Ugandan officials have retreated from any discussion of the issue beyond issuing blanket denials that any deal with Israel exists.
Hundreds of African asylum-seekers protest in front of the Knesset on Jan. 26, 2017. Some demonstrators hold placards showing migrants they say were killed after being deported from Israel. (Photo credit: GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
As public opinion has turned against asylum-seekers and Israel has become more insular, many Israelis believe their country is losing touch with its founding values. Anat Ovadia-Rosner, the former spokesperson for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a Tel Aviv-based legal advocacy group, told me the situation makes her think of her grandparents. “They were both in Auschwitz, survivors of the Holocaust. When I hear the story of the asylum-seekers … it reminds me exactly of the stories that I heard of my grandparents.” She said she understands why some Israelis are hesitant to open the borders to large numbers of refugees from outside the Jewish faith, but believes “we have a moral obligation” to do so.
The Israeli government, which, if not directly responsible, is by now well aware that some of the asylum-seekers returned to Africa have been pressured into illegal border crossings, clearly does not agree with Ovadia-Rosner. What’s not yet clear is whether Israeli courts do. In 2015, a coalition of Israeli human rights groups filed a petition challenging the legality of Israel’s policy of detaining asylum-seekers unless they agree to return to their country of origin or to accept a transfer to the unnamed third nations. They sought to prove that, in the Eritrean cases specifically, the Israeli policy is effectively forcing the asylum-seekers to choose between possibly indefinite incarceration and a relocation process that strips them of any status or protection.
But the petition, which was heard by a district court judge in Beersheba — the largest city in the Negev Desert — was ultimately rejected on the grounds that there was “no evidence of persecution or harassment by the authorities in the third country to which they were removed.” The judge, Rachel Barkai, based her decision on evidence that she allowed to be presented behind closed doors, because of the confidential nature of the agreements with the third countries. But according to Anat Ben-Dor, the director of the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University and one of the lawyers working on the case, it included the findings of Israeli investigators who traveled to Rwanda and Uganda in May 2015. Their interviews, Barkai wrote in her decision, “painted a positive picture regarding the integration process in the third country.”
There is still a chance that the transfer program could be struck down by an Israeli court. After Barkai rejected their petition, the human rights organizations appealed the case to the country’s Supreme Court. The justices heard initial arguments early last year, but the case is still pending.
Even as the judges deliberate, former residents of Holot are turning up in jails or dead in countries across East and North Africa. At least three have been arrested in Kenya, according to UNHCR officials in Tel Aviv, and another 40 were arrested attempting to cross from Uganda into South Sudan, according to a UNHCR official in Kampala. Some have drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe, friends and family members say. And at Holot, a video circulated of Islamic State fighters beheading three of the men who agreed to resettle in Rwanda but were later caught in Libya on their way, apparently, to attempt a Mediterranean crossing.
Many proponents of the secret transfer agreements are sympathetic to the plight of the refugees, but argue that they pose a real danger to Israel — not just in terms of jobs lost or crimes committed but to the very nature of the Jewish state. They say that Israel tried to do its part, integrating tens of thousands of asylum-seekers into a population of 8 million, but that the consequences were severe. “The neighborhoods have pretty much transformed,” said Yonatan Jakubowicz, who works at the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, which has supported increasingly restrictive policies against the asylum-seekers in recent years.
I met Jakubowicz in a Tel Aviv restaurant, across the street from an auditorium where he was scheduled to participate in a debate that evening on Israel’s immigration policies. “While the situation was never great, the local residents, they always say they had a sense of community. And that way of life has been threatened by the influx of these migrants,” he told me, adding that Israel had “turned into a main destination for migration from Africa and people were just pouring in en masse.”
A Sudanese asylum-seeker visits the Holocaust Museum of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in March 2007. (Photo credit: YOAV LEMMER/AFP/Getty Images)
A Sudanese man waits for a ruling on his asylum application at the Maasiyahu jail in Ramle, Israel in 2007. (Photo credit: URIEL SINAI /Getty Images)
African asylum-seekers wait out a cold winter night during a protest in Tel Aviv's Levinski Park on Feb. 5, 2014. (Photo credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Jakubowicz’s center supported the closure of the border with Egypt in 2013 and the creation of Holot. The desert detention facility is a kind of “sifting system,” Jakubowicz told me. People truly in need of asylum, he argued, would rather spend a year there than agree to return to their own country, as some of the asylum-seekers have done, or to be relocated to an unknown third country. Elsewhere, he pointed out, refugees have been content to live in camps that offer even less than Holot does.
His support for the third-country transfers appeared to waver, though, after I started telling him the stories of the refugees I had met in Rwanda and Uganda — about their coerced departures, about how they had been denied asylum. “Most people aren’t aware of what’s going on so much,” he said. “Most people believe that if the government says they have an agreement with third countries and that the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior have gone there and sent representatives to check the situation, then they believe the situation is fine. That’s a good solution.”
But if Jakubowicz had begun to question the Israeli government’s assurances about the transfers, he still didn’t understand why people would continue to agree to be relocated if the situation in Rwanda and Uganda was as dire as I said it was. After all, new groups of asylum-seekers were signing up to leave nearly every week, despite the fact that many residents of Holot were in regular contact with friends and family members in East Africa who are likely informing them about what really happens there. I said I didn’t have a good answer for him and that I would do my best to find out.
When I returned to Uganda in February 2016, I called Jamsom Berhane, one of the first asylum-seekers from Israel I had met back in April 2015. Berhane, also a pseudonym, was born in Ethiopia, but to an Eritrean mother. In 1997, at the age of 20, he went to visit family in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. There he was arrested and, unable to convince the authorities that he was an Ethiopian citizen, conscripted into service. Over the next 10 years, he attempted to flee the Eritrean military at least a half-dozen times. In 2007, he was finally successful after he jumped, unnoticed, from a moving truck and took off running. He made his way from Sudan to Egypt and — in December — to Israel. After more than six years in Israel, he received his summons to Holot in April 2014. Four months later he agreed to be relocated to Rwanda.
Berhane had initially been happy to tell me his story, eager to make people aware of what had happened to him after he had agreed to be transferred to Rwanda. But as we met and spoke regularly over the course of a year, he had become increasingly morose and reclusive. His money had run out and he was unable to find work. He lived off the goodwill of a distant cousin, but Berhane was afraid to ask too often for support. The result was a lot of skipped meals.
Still, he agreed to meet with me again at our usual location — an Ethiopian restaurant in the heart of Kampala’s nightclub district. After we exchanged greetings and I told him all the details of my trip to Israel, I posed Jakubowicz’s question to him: Given everything that had happened, would he accept Israel’s offer of the transfer again?
Yes, he told me, without hesitation. Though his life is miserable in Uganda, it offers a possibility now foreclosed in Israel, just as it had been in Eritrea and Sudan and Egypt. “I need freedom,” he said. “For 19 years, I am not able to move around. I’m thinking about my freedom. You have freedom and you do everything. You don’t have freedom, you close your mind.”
Ultimately, Israel never intended to give him his freedom, he said. To him, the lie Israeli officials told about asylum in Rwanda was merely the final confirmation of that fact. At least in Uganda, they have not yet put him in prison. Berhane gestured for me to turn my recorder off. “I don’t want to speak about Israel anymore,” he said. “Israel, it was my first mistake.”