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“Better a prison in Israel than dying on the way” – testimonies of refugees who left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda and received protection in Europe”

A study conducted by three migration researchers – Shahar Shoham, Liat Bolzman and Lior Birger – presents a clear picture: promises made by the State of Israel both in court and personally to those leaving “voluntarily” about what awaits them upon reaching Rwanda and Uganda were not kept. Instead of access to official claims of asylum and work permits, upon landing in Rwanda their travel documents were taken from them. None of them could access application possibilities to claim asylum. Thus, deprived of any official documents, they were exposed to robbery, threats and imprisonment. They were forced to proceed on to life-threatening journey across South Sudan, Sudan and Libya while seeking shelter. On their way they suffered trafficking in person, imprisonment, the threat of being forcibly returned   back to Eritrea, harsh conditions of hunger, violence and slave-labor in Libya’s torture camps, as well as a perilous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Europe. They described a perilous journey permeated with an all-encompassing fear of death haunted by imminent death. Many witnessed the death of fellow travelers during the crossing of the Sahara Desert, in the torture camps in Libya and as they drowned in the Mediterranean. Among the dead were others who had those who left Israel “voluntarily.”

[In Rwanda] “Three days after our arrival, this man picked us up from the airport told us, ‘you must leave for Uganda’. I asked where are our documents and why must we leave? – He said that we must.”
(Gabriel, pseudonym, left Israel in October 2015 for Rwanda under the “voluntary leave” procedure of the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority)

[In Uganda] “One man takes out a big knife, and tells us ‘Give us money or we’ll kill you’. They took everything we had, 3,500 dollars, clothes, cellphone, they take everything. […] And we don’t know what to do…”
(Dwight, pseudonym,  left Israel for Rwanda under the “voluntary leave” procedure of the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority}

[In Sudan] They took us at night to prison. And I thought to myself: ‘Those who do not pay, we will send them back to Eritrea. If I return to Eritrea, what can I tell you? They’ll kill me. I was crying, I was like a crazy person.”
(Samson, pseudonym, left Israel in April 2016 and reached Rwanda under the “voluntary leave” procedure of the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority).

[In Libya] “You’re locked inside. Eat and sleep there. 800 people in a small room. Everything is dirty, everyone is sick, boys, girls. I can’t talk about it. They beat you, threaten you, kill you quietly.”
(Samson, pseudonym, left Israel in 2016 for Rwanda under the “voluntary leave” procedure of the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority. Now lives in Holland, where he was granted refugee status).

[In the Mediterranean Sea] “I saw 400 people inside… the water, they drowned. I saw people got in and all of them died on the boat. Nine boats went into the sea, we were before this ship, many children died, I remember. I don’t have the strength anymore to talk about it.
(Johannes, pseudonym, left Israel in 2015 for Rwanda under the “voluntary leave” procedure of the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority. Now lives in Holland, where he was granted refugee status).

Not only are the promises made to those leaving “voluntarily” not kept – this report concludes that the implementation of deportations to a “a third country” poses a grave threat to the mental wellbeing, safety and lives of men, women and children. To this day, this policy has cost the lives of many who reached Israel in the hope of finding shelter and did not find it there. It is impossible to read the testimonies brought forth in this report otherwise; they are a clear call to stop the looming deportation policy and regularize the status of asylum-seekers residing in Israel.  

This report is based on interviews conducted with Eritrean refugees who  left Israel under the “Voluntary” Departure program to Rwanda and Uganda. There – in contrast to the promises made to them by the State of Israel – they were not granted protection, forcing them to embark on a dangerous journey ending in Europe. This report focuses on the “Voluntary Departure” policy and how it affected the lives of those who left Israel under it. This policy has been implemented since late 2013 vis-à-vis Eritrean and Sudanese residing in Israel. In January 2018, shortly before the publication of this report, the State of Israel announced an escalation of the measures it implements against this population; one such measure is a plan to forcibly deport asylum-seekers to a third country, i.e., not their homeland.

The report is based on a qualitative research made up  of 19 interviews with Eritrean refugees who left Israel between 2014-2016. 11 interviews were conducted in Germany and eight in the Netherlands, the countries of residence of the interviewees, in which the overwhelming majority received refugee status.

This conclusion is in congruence with findings of previous reports published by Israeli and international NGOs that collected testimonies in African countries of those who “voluntarily” departed Israel. These testimonies were recently buttressed by a statement of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) about dozens of similar testimonies the agency collected in Italy. Taken together, several hundreds of testimonies have been collected.

Thus, the report confirms that the alarming patterns documented by previous reports have not changed. In addition, this report, for the first time, details additional stages in the journey of those who departed. Little information was available about these legs of the journey – and especially about what the interviewees experienced in Libya and during their crossing of the Mediterranean Sea– until their arrival in Europe.

The authors are independent researchers with years of experience working with refugee communities residing in Israel under the auspices of several NGOs: Lior Birger, a PhD candidate for Social Work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Fellow at the joint program of the Hebrew University and the Free University of Berlin -“Human Rights Under Pressure”. Shahar Shoham, a PhD candidate for Area and Global Studies at the Institute for Asian and African Studies , Humboldt University in Berlin and a grantee of the Hans-Böckler Foundation in Germany. Liat Bolzman, an M.A. student for Social Work and Human Rights at the Alice Salomon University in Berlin and a grantee of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Germany. “The harsh testimonies brought in this report clearly show the brutal ramifications of Israel’s official policy towards refugees,” say Shoham, Bolzman and Birger. “They prove that the promises made by Israel’s government to those leaving regarding what they are about to face in Rwanda and Uganda – are lies. The people who testified us emphasized that although they have found shelter and protection in Europe, they feel obliged to expose the truth about the perilous journey they were forced to undertake. They said, furthermore, that ‘not another human being should suffer the horrors inflicted on us.’

We join the many voices of protest presently raised, and call upon the Government of Israel to revoke its decision, to truly and fairly examine the claims for asylum and protection, and to stop deporting asylum-seekers to places in which, instead of protection, expose them to violence, torture and the peril of death.”

For full report