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September 03, 2013

Israel, Uganda Discuss Deal for African Asylum Seekers

by Hilary Heuler

Israel says it is likely to send at least some of its Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to Uganda.  In return for accepting the refugees, Uganda would receive aid and weapons.  Such a trade would provide Uganda the weapons it seeks, but could create legal problems as well.

Last week, Israel’s interior minister said Uganda had agreed to accept thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese, whom Israel considers to be illegal economic migrants.  Nearly 55,000 of them live in Israel, where many have sought asylum.

But since Friday, the number of migrants destined for Uganda has been scaled down to a few hundred.  Israeli officials said the “deal” with Uganda was nothing more than a verbal understanding, and the Ugandan government has denied such an agreement exists.

But it appeared the announcement was not entirely unfounded.  The co-founder of the International Refugee Rights Initiative in Kampala, Dismas Nkunda, said he has heard rumors of such a deal for the past two years.  But he said it did not seem to have gone through the usual channels.

“What we heard is that there are certain Uganda government officials who entered those negotiations without necessarily informing the agencies that are responsible for protection or even admission of refugees into the country,” said Nkunda.

Israel’s relationship with Uganda has been tumultuous.  In 1976, Idi Amin famously gave refuge to Palestinians who had hijacked a passenger plane, and dozens of people were killed in the Israeli commando rescue operation that followed.

But Makarere University Security Studies Professor Paul Omach explained in the 1960s the two countries were closely connected, with Israel giving Uganda agricultural training and military aid.

“I know in the 1960s Israel was training the air force.  A number of Ugandan paratroopers trained in Israel also.  At that time Israel was trying to use Uganda as a southern flank to fight the Arabs during the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said.

Under Uganda’s current president, Yoweri Museveni, Israel has provided military assistance once more, although Omach said the details of these deals were never made public.  If Uganda does accept Israel’s unwanted migrants, he said, it may well be in exchange for arms.

“Museveni is always building the military.  Right now he has just commissioned a tank crew.  So this is a continuous thing.  We live in a turbulent region, so you need to be prepared,” said Omach.

But sending asylum seekers to Uganda would contradict international refugee law, said Nkunda, and could create legal problems once the migrants arrived.

“What happens to them, certainly that is going to be a very big legal problem, because on what basis are they being admitted in Uganda?  They have not sought refugee status in Uganda, they have not sought asylum in Uganda.  They sought first asylum in the first country they thought of, which was Israel.  Actually, you might say that they might end up becoming stateless,” said Nkunda.

Nor was it clear where the new arrivals would be put, he added, though they may well end up in one of Uganda’s refugee camps.

“We have large camps in Uganda; camps for Congolese, camps for Somalis even.  So it is possible that they might end up just driving them over into the camp to look after themselves,” said Nkunda.

Omach said this could be just another example of a richer nation paying a poorer one to solve its problems.

“Israel looks at these immigrants, mostly Africans really, as unwanted in its country.  So if somebody can take it and you can just sign the checks, and you get somebody who is itching for money, that is definitely what they will do,” said the professor.

But unless a formal agreement is signed, Omach and Nkunda agree the public may never know the details of what really happened between Israel and Uganda.