“When the conflict started in the Darfur region and we came to Israel, all the people knew why,” said Yeman Adam, a 30-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker who fled to Israel in 2008. “The media was making comparisons between the Holocaust and Darfur genocide, and the Israeli government accepted us.”
As he spoke, Adam sat in the underground headquarters for the group he founded, the Dakaraw Termenan Organization: a freshly painted white room in South Tel Aviv lined in shut-down computers and fringed in royal-blue curtains. The room was empty except for Adam and two friends. They all come from the Masalit tribe, one of various Darfuri tribes targeted by the Sudanese government.
“We used to have hundreds of people in this office. You couldn’t find a chair to sit here,” Adam continued. But now, thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers are being pushed out of Tel Aviv — some returning to Africa, and others moving to the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, the new prison complex constructed near the border with the Sinai desert.
Adam and the handful of Masalit tribe members still living in Tel Aviv have been trying to get in touch with seven men in their tribe, all of whom departed Israel for Sudan’s Khartoum International Airport within the last few weeks.
They’ve all gone missing.
Those seven missing Masalit are part of a growing crisis. Since the exodus began in December, almost 3,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, of approximately 55,000 who had settled in Israel and are now facing prison, have chosen instead to depart to either Sudan, Eritrea or a third African country — namely, Uganda or Rwanda.
From left: Feisel Adam, Hassan Rahima and Yeman Adam, Sudanese community organizers, met at their office in South Tel Aviv.
Abdulmalik Abdalla, a dimply 30-year-old who worked at hotels across Israel for the last few years, is on the Masalit tribe’s disappearance list. On Feb. 18, the day before he left for Sudan, he and his friends shared a bottle of whiskey and a giant platter of chicken wings in a closet-sized apartment in the run-down Neve Sha’anan neighborhood of South Tel Aviv. A cloth hanging over the room’s small window fluttered on an unusually warm winter breeze. Abdalla’s eyes watered some as he talked about how excited he was to see his family, from which he had been separated for more than a decade.
Abdalla still hasn’t gotten that chance. Sudanese security officials told a friend who came to meet Abdalla at the airport that Abdalla had been taken into custody.
No one has heard from Abdalla since he departed Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on Feb. 19.
“We’re hearing about hundreds of people being arrested” upon arrival to Sudan, said Rami Gudovitch, a longtime advocate for African refugees in Israel who also teaches philosophy at Haifa University and the Interdisciplinary Center. Gudovitch has been compiling data based on testimony from his hundreds of contacts in the refugee community; he estimates that a minimum of 500 asylum seekers who returned to Sudan from Israel are behind bars.
Seven of those Sudanese men, he said, are believed to be dead.
Hundreds of African asylum seekers waited outside an extension office for the Israeli Ministry of Interior, hoping to renew their visas, on March 4.
This botched African exodus from Israel is the result of a plan revealed by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar last August. According to Israeli news site Ynet.com, Sa’ar said in a government meeting that “a wide-scale deportation campaign will begin following the coming holidays,” starting with a period of “willing deportation” and ending with the mass cancellation of visas and forced expulsion.
Come December 2013, as promised, the plan entered its first stage, and the Ministry of Interior began offering $3,500 to any asylum seeker who agreed to relocate.
In accordance with United Nations guidelines, Israel is not forcibly deporting any Eritrean or Sudanese nationals back to their volatile home countries. At a press conference on March 4, Sa’ar stressed that “everyone who leaves, whether to his country of origin or a third country, leaves of his own free will.”
But according to dozens of asylum seekers who spoke to the Jewish Journal, the decision to depart to Sudan and Eritrea, as well as Uganda and Rwanda, is made under intense pressure.
“The fact that they’re taking the money and going back does not make them less of refugees,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Israel’s oldest nonprofit assisting the Africans. “It only means that the life here is so horrible that they will take the risk with the hope of finding another country that will protect them.”
Sudanese and Eritrean nationals staying in Israel face two options: indefinite detention at Holot, the remote desert prison, or life under constant fear of losing their visas (and therefore their livelihood). Thousands are turning in applications for asylum, but the Ministry of Interior has only reported three approvals. As reporter Michael Omer-Man pointed out in Israel’s liberal +972 Magazine, government authorities have provided asylum seekers “the most basic protection — against deportation to their home countries — but in all other ways treated them like infiltrators.”
Filmon Ghide, 20, was forced to sleep in South Tel Aviv's central Levinsky Park when the Ministry of Interior wouldn't renew his visa so he could work.
Since the Holot detention facility was unveiled in early December, around 3,500 asylum seekers, seemingly the ones who’ve been in Israel the longest, have been summoned to the prison without trial for the crime of illegally crossing the border.
Food and medicine at the prison are severely lacking, as evidenced by cellphone photos snapped by prisoners inside. “If we complain, [prison staffers] tell us, 'Then why don't you go home?’ ” Muhamad Musa, formerly a jewelry shop owner in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, told the Journal. Other prisoners said jail officials constantly pressure them to accept the government’s offer of $3,500 and a flight out.
Life isn’t much easier for those who remain in the city. On a recent Tuesday, what looked to be about 800 Africans, including women and children, crowded around the gates to a newly opened Ministry of Interior building especially for African migrants. The offices, tucked between warehouses and office buildings on a hidden alley in North Tel Aviv, opened just last week — an alternative to the much more visible Ministry of Interior building nearby, situated at a major intersection across from the Azrieli Center mall.
“Why did they change places? Because there are 700 people in line, and everybody will pass by and see the problem,” said Eritrean asylum seeker Filmon Ghide. (The ministry did not respond to a request for comment.)
“They are kicking me like a soccer ball from office to office,” he said.
Approximately 1,000 asylum seekers protested outside the Holot detention facility for “illegal infiltrators” in the Israeli desert on Feb. 17.
On that Tuesday, a cluster of asylum seekers quickly formed around a reporter who had come to check out the new location. “Every day I come here [to the Ministry of Interior]. I am not yet sleeping here, but some are,” said Fitsum Tesfasilase, 36, who has been attempting — unsuccessfully — to renew his visa for more than a month. “We can’t make our rent. We can’t feed ourselves. Before, I worked cleaning the streets — black work. But now I can’t support my wife and my child.” Because Tesfasilase escaped forced, indefinite military service in Eritrea after 13 years as a soldier, he said he would likely face life in prison, or worse, if he returned to Eritrea.
Semere Abraham, 24, another Eritrean waiting in the line-turned-mob, said that a close friend of his named Merhawe had accepted Israel’s offer to fly to Uganda about two weeks ago. However, he said, the plan went terribly wrong: Merhawe was detained at the Uganda airport, flown to Egypt, detained again, and then sent against his wishes to Eritrea. “I was calling to his house [in Eritrea], and his mother was crying,” Abraham said. “He’s in the prison now.”
Last summer, Israeli officials announced that Uganda had agreed to accept some of Israel’s unwanted Africans. Ugandan officials, however, quickly denied the deal — and have denied it ever since. Musa Ecweru, who heads refugee affairs at Uganda’s Ministry for Relief and Disaster Preparedness, told the Journal: “I have not been formally informed of this. I just heard in the news.”
Ecweru added: “I don’t know why they would even want to come here and not relocate to Eritrea.”
And Yolande Makolo, a spokeswoman in Rwanda’s Office of the President, said: “That’s really interesting. This is the first I’m hearing of this. Let me get back to you.” Makolo did not respond to multiple attempts to follow up.
Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority has become equally tight-lipped. “The only thing we can confirm is that there are some of them who are flying to another country and not their homeland,” a spokeswoman said via e-mail.
A waiting room on the seventh floor of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority building in South Tel Aviv is plastered with dozens of signs that say “No Exit Through Window.”
However, according to multiple Eritrean and Sudanese men who have been trying to renew their visas at the Israeli Ministry of Interior, government staffers are telling them that they have the option to be relocated not only to Uganda but also to next-door Rwanda.
This is incredibly distressing, said Dismas Nkunda of the International Refugee Rights Initiative — not to mention, he said, “absolutely illegal by both Israel” and the other countries.
Uganda and Rwanda are still dealing with their own refugee crises, and without a formal relocation overseen by the United Nations, according to Nkunda and other human-rights experts, there is no guarantee that Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers will receive the protection they need.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has yet to intervene. However, a UNHCR spokesman issued a statement to the Journal demanding that any state, including Israel, “refrain from any future measure that could directly or indirectly lead to the return of a person to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened.”
In a series of interviews, Eritrean asylum seeker Ghide, 20, said five of his friends received $3,500 each from the Israeli government to board a plane to Rwanda in the past three weeks. Over the phone from Rwanda, his friends now tell him that around 30 asylum seekers from Israel are in the Central African country; in addition, according to Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a plane carrying more of them to Rwanda departed Tuesday night.
Ghide said he would never accept the deal. His own father has been imprisoned for years under the current dictator, Isaias Afewerki, for worshipping and preaching as a Protestant Christian, and he’s afraid that Eritrean government would kidnap him from Uganda or Rwanda and shut him, too, in an underground jail. Nevertheless, the young Eritrean said, he understands his friends’ decision.
“Jail in your own country can be better than living in another country as a prisoner,” he said, “because maybe you will find a guard or something to send a message to your mother or father. And after six or seven years, maybe they will release you.”
Hundreds of African asylum seekers waited outside an extension office for the Israeli Ministry of Interior, hoping to renew their visas, on March 4.
Ghide said his friends in Rwanda also told him by phone that an anonymous official met them at the airport and gave them money to stay at a hotel for a couple of nights. But now they’re panicking, he said, because “they cannot get work and nobody is helping them. They are so worried about it.”
Another group of seven asylum seekers from Sudan spoke to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz from Uganda after leaving Israel in mid-February.
NGOs are having trouble keeping up with this chaotic scattering of Israel’s asylum seekers across Africa. Rozen at Hotline for Refugees and Migrants said she received information from the UNHCR that one Eritrean man whom Israel tried to relocate to Rwanda was immediately put on a plane to Eritrea by Rwandan authorities.
“There are a lot of weird stories — there’s one story about a group that ended up finding themselves in Chad,” said Gudovitch. The Israeli activist is scrambling to compile a comprehensive list of the departed by early April, when the Supreme Court of Israel is set to review a petition against the law allowing indefinite detention at Holot.
According to those tracking the departures, Eritrea has seen the fewest voluntary returns. Although the nation is not as globally infamous as, say, Darfur, asylum seekers say life under authoritarian rule has become intolerable. In December 2010, the U.S. ambassador to Asmara, Eritrea’s capital city, wrote in a leaked embassy cable: “Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea's prisons are overflowing, and the country's unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant.” Every year since 2007, Eritrea has placed dead last on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index; the organization writes that “the few journalists who dare to criticize the regime are thrown in prison.” Swedish-Eritrean journalist Meron Estefanos has called it “the North Korea of Africa.”
Meanwhile, Israeli government officials have boasted about the thousands of 2014 departures without acknowledging the dangers facing refugees. “Every week now, there are fewer infiltrators in Israel,” Sa’ar announced at his March 4 press conference.
Filmon Ghide, far right, helped translate for fellow Eritrean asylum seeker Fitsum Tesfasilase outside Tel Aviv's new visa office. “I was forced to serve in the military for 13 years as a slave, and I ran away in the night,” Tesfasilase said in his native language of Tegrinyia.
Massive asylum-seeker rallies against Sa’ar’s policies in January and February have dwindled in recent weeks. “The government of Israel has done a tremendous job convincing the Israeli public that all these people are work infiltrators, and that we should keep them away as quickly as possible,” said Rozen with Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “This is actually our main problem.”
A skit staged by three asylum seekers in Holot’s front parking lot on March 8, with two busloads of Tel Aviv visitors as audience, poked fun at Israel’s deportation tactics. One Sudanese actor, pretending to be an Israeli government worker, whispered temptations into community leader Anwar Suliman’s ear — telling him how peaceful Sudan had become and how great it would be to see his family. After a few minutes of these sweet lies, to wild laughter, Suliman scribbled his signature onto the voluntary return form and threw his hands up in defeat.
In reality, Sudan is still incredibly dangerous, said 38-year-old Hassan Rahima, a widely respected community leader and head of the Organization of Sudanese Refugees in Israel, an umbrella organization for various tribal groups. “I cannot go back. I lost before my whole family: I was in my area in the Nuba Mountains, and my mother, my brother and my sister were all killed in front of my eyes. I was in jail for three months. Then the boss of the jail took me to where he lived and kept me as his slave for three years. I was cleaning the house and washing the clothes. I brought water to the house from the river on my back. All the time, they sent me to get water.”
The government that would meet him at the Khartoum International Airport, Rahima said, “is the same government who committed these crimes in the Nuba Mountains.”