Asylum seekers sent to Rwanda warn: ‘If you don’t want to die, stay in Israel’

Israeli officials often imply that African asylum seekers sent to Rwanda will receive legal status and the ability to build a life there. Testimonies collected in a new report paint an entirely different — and much grimmer — picture. 

African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against deportation in front of the Rwandan Embassy in Herzliya, on January 22, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against deportation in front of the Rwandan Embassy in Herzliya, on January 22, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“I saw 400 people [in the Mediterranean]. They drowned […] many children died, I remember. I don’t have the strength to talk about it.”

“[In the Sahara] people died and we buried them […] At night it returns to our head. It returns. I don’t want to remember. It wakes me up, what I saw, people dying, no food.”

“[In Uganda] they take all that we had…3,500 dollars…clothes, cellphone, they take everything…and we don’t know what to do.”

“You want to die? Then go back. If you don’t want to die, stay in Israel.”

These testimonies of Eritrean refugees who left Israel for Rwanda as part of an Israeli government program to rid the country of African asylum seekers appear in a report by researchers Lior Birger, Shahar Shoham, and Liat Bolzman, published on Thursday. Israeli and international activists have launched a broad campaign in recent weeks, aiming to highlight the fate that awaits asylum seekers who leave Israel. The report tells the stories of 19 Eritrean asylum seekers sent to Rwanda between 2014 and 2016.

All of the Eritrean refugees interviewed in the report were denied refugee status in Israel and labeled “infiltrators” by the Israeli government and the media. Nearly all of them received official refugee status after their arrival in Germany or the Netherlands. Despite having made it to relative safety, the refugees interviewed in the report warned asylum seekers still in Israel: “It is better in Israel in prison than dying on the way.”

Israeli officials often imply that asylum seekers who leave Israel will receive some sort of legal status or future in Rwanda. The testimonies of those who have been sent there paint an entirely different picture.

According to the refugees’ testimonies, in Rwanda, they had their travel documents, and in some cases their $3,500 travel grants, stolen from them. They were also denied legal status and the ability to work in Rwanda. They recalled being trafficked into Uganda, where they were imprisoned, threatened, and robbed again. From Uganda, they crossed into South Sudan, where they were incarcerated for lacking any forms of documentation. After South Sudan, they continued to Sudan, and then to Libya. Their fear of being forced to return to Eritrea pushed them to risk the journey to Libya. “If I came back to my country,” Dawit (a pseudonym) told the researchers, “they can kill me.”

Asylum seekers protest the Israeli government's deportation plan in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya. January 22, 2018 (Keren Manor/
Asylum seekers protest the Israeli government’s deportation plan in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya. January 22, 2018 (Keren Manor/

The journey from Sudan to Libya requires traversing the Sahara Desert. The refugees interviewed in the report described violence and suffering “beyond words” during the journey, forced to sit for long periods of time in “small Toyota trucks, each of them crammed with about thirty individuals.” In the Sahara, they witnessed beatings, executions, and rape. “Everyday they come and beat us,” Kidane (a pseudonym) recounted. They “see you as animals, not people.” Another refugee, Tesfay (also a pseudonym), said, “every day one person died, two people died.”

Those who made it to Libya were jailed in one-room cells, often with several hundred other people. Brehane (a pseudonym), remembered:

“I was in Libya for three months… 1,500 people in a room… People are sick, you don’t shower for days, you don’t go to the bathroom… I had a little bit of money, thanks be to God, but [people] who didn’t have… Every day, they would beat them… They don’t give them food, no shower… If they don’t pay… God help them… A human being is not a human being in Libya.”

From Libya, all of the refugees interviewed crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Tens of thousands of refugees have died trying to reach Europe’s shores. In November, Der Tagesspiegel, a German newspaper, published the names of 33,330 refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean since 1993. Dawit, one of the refugees interviewed in the report, was separated from his wife, who was two months pregnant. “She came on another boat, and this is why my wife died,” he recalled. “450 people dead [on that boat].”

The Israeli government announced in January that the African asylum seekers had three months to leave the country. Those who remain will face a stark choice: deportation or indefinite detention in Israel. The Israeli government maintains that a secret agreement with an African country presumed to be Rwanda allows for the deportation of asylum seekers, even against their will. Rwandan officials, however, have repeatedly denied the existence of any secret agreement with Israel and recently sent out messages discouraging asylum seekers from leaving Israel under threat of imprisonment or coercion.

Despite hundreds of testimonies from asylum seekers who were sent to Rwanda, Israeli officials continue to insist that Rwanda is a safe place to deport the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, bucking the rising public pressure against the deportation plan, claimed that the unnamed African country presumed to be Rwanda is considered by the UN “to be one of the safest in Africa.” Netanyahu called the campaign to stop the deportations “baseless and absurd.”

According to the report, between 2013 and 2017, 3,959 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers left Israel under the “voluntary return” program. However, the researchers added, “due to the legal status and restrictive measures implemented against them by the state, the voluntary nature of this departure is highly in doubt.”

The Israeli government has refused to process and accept the overwhelming majority of African asylum seekers’ claims. To date, Israel has recognized only one Sudanese man and 10 Eritreans as refugees. In contrast, according to the report, 91.4 percent of Eritreans who filed claims in Europe were recognized as refugees.

Israel’s lack of a clear asylum policy and its failure to make information available has also made it difficult for people to submit asylum requests. Only 15,000 of the roughly 38,000 asylum seekers living in Israel have submitted requests for refugee status, and Israel has reviewed just 7,000 of those requests.

Attorney Anat Ben Dor of Tel University’s Refugee Rights Clinic told me last December that the practical result of Israel’s lack of a clear asylum policy was that people eligible for refugee status had not received it. “People don’t know if they submitted [their asylum requests] or didn’t,” she said. “And now there are long waits that make it impossible.”