In a turnaround, the Ugandan government announced today, Friday that it may take in 500 African asylum seekers from Israel. Israel wants to relocate thousands of Africans, mostly Eritrean and Sudanese, that it says entered Israel illegally.
State minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Musa Ecweru, acknowledged the request from Israel during a news conference at the Uganda Media Centre.
“The state of Israel, working with other refugee-managing organizations, has requested Uganda to allow about 500 refugees of Eritrean and Sudanese descent to be relocated to Uganda," Ecweru said. "The government and ministry are positively considering the request.”
The U.N. Refugee Agency says some 4,000 African asylum seekers have voluntarily left Israel for Uganda and Rwanda since 2013, reports both countries have continuously denied.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Ecweru denied the existence of any so-called secret deals between Uganda and Israel on the matter. He said applicants for the 500 slots currently being discussed would be rigorously vetted. It had been reported earlier that both Uganda and Rwanda accepted to take in the asylum seekers in return for cash and arms deals.
“We are processing. The eligibility committee is standing by just to receive the first batch, and we’ll process them through the assessment and those who will meet our criteria will certainly be granted asylum immediately,” said Ecweru.
He did not offer further details, though he did seem to indicate the relocations to Uganda would be voluntary. Israel is home to about 40,000 African asylum seekers.
Most are from Eritrea and Sudan and say they cannot return home for fear of conflict or oppression. Many arrived in Israel between 2006 and 2012. Israel’s government rejects claims the Africans are refugees, describing them as economic migrants and “infiltrators.”
In January, Israel issued an ultimatum to the single men in the group – accept a cash payment of $3,500 (about Shs 12.9 million), a plane ticket to a third country in Africa or face detention and deportation.
The Israeli government’s plan to begin forced deportations in April has been put on a hold by Israel's Supreme court to give the petitioners more time to argue against the move.
According to an article published by media, Haaretz today reported that the visa documents presented in the Supreme court are fake. The documents were reportedly presented as proof by the state that third world countries including Uganda have accepted to take in the asylum seekers.
It is further revealed that according to the Population and Immigration Authority, the visas were issued by the Ugandan government, and given by Israel because Uganda does not have an official representative in the Jewish State.
According to the report, the document given in Israel states that an official visa would be given to the infiltrators upon their arrival in Uganda, along with an identity card. However the Ugandan officials according to Haaretz questioned the authenticity of the issued documents, saying they haven't been signed by any official.
“No one wrote this document, it’s fake, totally fake,” said Robert Kanuma, the head immigration officer at Entebbe Airport.
“It is not true that every asylum seeker receives a visa and an ID card when he arrives,” a source in the Office of the President of Uganda told Haaretz.
“Uganda has an electronic border management system where visitors can apply for a visa and present the relevant documents at any entry point. None of that happened in this case."
According to Reuters, during the Supreme court hearing in Jerusalem, when one of the three judges asked the state representatives why Uganda was denying the deal, if indeed there was one, the state said it would provide the court with an explanation in a closed session. The Israeli state has until noon on Sunday to present the Supreme court with a finalised plan for the deportation of the illegal infiltrators.
For Uganda, welcoming asylum seekers from Israel could prove to be a touchy subject. The country is already straining to host more than 1.4 million refugees, most of whom have fled conflicts in neighbouring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo in just the past two years.