PARIS – It became clear to Arzer* in the spring of 2014 that Israel would never grant him refugee status.
The 33-year-old Eritrean had been living in Israel for more than eight years, working as a cook in Tel Aviv, when he received a summons to report to Holot detention center for asylum seekers in the Negev desert.
Arzer knew all about Holot. Many of his friends were detained there. Though they could wander the desert during the daytime, in every other way it was just like a prison. So Arzer went into hiding. Unable to leave the house, his money soon ran out and the stress got to him.
Going back to Eritrea was not an option. Arzer fled the dictatorship in the country after being imprisoned and beaten for voicing a political opinion; he was only able to escape because he knew one of the prison guards.
Living in hiding in Israel, Arzer felt like he was in prison again. He decided that his only option was to take up the Israeli government’s offer to “voluntarily depart” for an unnamed African country.
That journey turned out to be just the beginning. Now in France, Arzer is among the asylum seekers pushed to leave Israel who quickly find themselves on the road again, taking more and more dangerous routes to find refuge.
While Israel has signed the U.N. Refugee Convention, it is almost impossible for the approximately 40,000 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants in the country to get refugee status. Only six Eritrean nationals and one Sudanese have been granted asylum since Africans started coming to Israel in large numbers in the mid-2000s.
The rest live in a legal limbo, with temporary visas that they must frequently renew or risk being sent to prison. They are officially referred to as “infiltrators.”
Israel’s government uses a carrot-and-stick approach to encourage asylum seekers to leave the country voluntarily.
The stick is detaining asylum seekers in Holot. Next month, Israel also plans to start withholding 20 percent of asylum seekers’ wages – which are already typically low – to be paid if and when they leave Israel.
The carrot is a cash payment of $3,500 to asylum seekers who leave voluntarily for a “third country” – that is, neither their country of origin nor Israel.
Israel sent about 14,000 asylum seekers to two “third countries” in Africa between 2013 and 2016, according to interior ministry statistics. Under the secret deals, Israel says it cannot identify the two countries. Refugee rights groups have extensively documented that they are Rwanda and Uganda.
No Refuge in Uganda
Arzer says Israeli immigration authorities told him that he would be sent to Uganda and would be allowed to live and work legally there.
But first, in July 2015 Arzer was put on a plane to Rwanda with around a dozen other Eritreans. Local officials confiscated their visas and passports upon arrival. They spent one night in a hotel before being told to pay $250 to be driven to Uganda.
“The men who asked us to pay up made it clear that the authorities wouldn’t let us stay in Rwanda,” he said.
Dozens of cases like Arzer’s have been documented by Israeli NGOs and by the International Refugee Rights Initiative. Some asylum seekers are sent straight to Uganda, others to Rwanda, where they are quickly transferred to Uganda. Most were not able to apply for asylum.
“The documents of asylum seekers who arrive from Israel are taken from them upon landing,” says Anat Ovadia-Osner, of the Israel-based Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “They are not granted any legal status or formal protection from deportation, and because asylum seekers cannot settle there, they are forced to keep searching for refuge in other places, exposed to abuse and exploitation.”
Israeli interior ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said Israeli officials check up on people who leave in the week after their arrival in a “third country.” After that, she said, they can contact Israeli authorities using a phone number provided before their departure.
Many asylum seekers told Israeli NGOs that they received no such number or follow-up from Israeli authorities. “They took my email address and my Facebook, and said, ‘We’ll check on you – we want to see how you are doing,’” Arzer said. “They didn’t give me any way to contact them.”
In Uganda, Arzer found himself with no identity documents and no way to make a living. He met other asylum seekers who had arrived from Israel months earlier, living off what was left of their Israeli cash payment, with few prospects.
“They told me to leave Uganda while I could still afford it,” he said.
Over Land and Sea
So Arzer took the well-worn migration path north, traveling first to South Sudan, then Sudan, then Libya. He spent a month living in a big warehouse in Tripoli with around 600 others waiting for smugglers to take them to Italy. “We slept on the floor, and ate one bowl of spaghetti per day,” he said. “We never went outside for fear of kidnappings.”
Danger is all around in Libya: There is the threat of kidnapping by militias or worse. In April 2014, the Libyan branch of ISIS released a video showing militants beheading several African men on a Libyan beach. Friends and relatives in Israel identified several of them as asylum seekers who had left Israel for “third countries” before trying to reach Europe.
Arzer said most of those waiting in Tripoli with him were Eritreans, as was the smuggler. “About a dozen had come from Israel through Uganda, like me. We spoke to each other in Hebrew, just to keep practicing the language we had learned,” he said.
On October 5, 2015, Arzer left Libya on an overcrowded boat. His voyage to Italy took around seven hours. He arrived safely, but almost 2,900 people drowned on the same sea passage that year.
Saadeldin Ibrahim, a Sudanese asylum seeker who emigrated directly from Israel to Sweden with help from his Israeli-Swedish wife, lost an entire group of friends at sea in 2015. “On one boat, there were 25 Sudanese men I knew from back in Israel; all of them had left Uganda,” he said. “When the boat sank, I lost 25 friends at once.”
The Ones Who Made It
From Italy, Arzer made the long and complicated journey to France. He spent time living in the Calais “Jungle” encampment, hoping to get to the U.K., before the camp was dismantled in October 2016 and its several thousand inhabitants were relocated to shelters around France.
Arzer now lives in a state-provided apartment in Ruffec, southwest France. He is taking French lessons while waiting to hear back on his asylum claim.
Haribab*, a 30-year-old Sudanese refugee from Darfur, also made it all the way to the Jungle camp. After living in Israel on temporary visas for more than seven years, he agreed to leave for a “third country” and was taken directly to Uganda, where his documents were confiscated. He, too, was advised by friends to leave Uganda while he could still afford to and took a boat across the Mediterranean.
After the Jungle camp closed, Haribab lived in Paris. His asylum claim was accepted within a few months. He now lives in Le Creusot in central France with a retired couple that he met through an NGO.
“In Israel, I don’t think they wanted refugees from Africa,” Haribab said. “But here, they accept me. Once I learn French, I will find work.”
Returns to Sudan
Another Sudanese asylum seeker who made it from Israel to France, Ahmed Adam, agreed to go to an unnamed third country in July 2016.
“It was a group of 30 of us Sudanese on the plane,” he remembers. “It landed at the Cairo airport. From there, we switched planes. Two hours later, we landed, but not in Uganda – in Khartoum, Sudan.”
Adam says he was promptly arrested, interrogated and beaten for three days. “They kept asking me, ‘Why did you go to Israel?’” he said.
Adam eventually bribed one of the guards to let him out. He fled to Libya, where he was kidnapped by a militia and made to work on a farm for a month, he says. When released, he took a boat to Sicily with the help of money sent by friends in Israel. He also spent time in Calais and is waiting on his asylum claim in a shelter in Nancy, northeastern France.
Suleyman*, a Sudanese asylum seeker now living in Sweden, described a similar incident a year earlier. Rather than going to a third country as promised, Suleyman says he was sent to Egypt, and from there to Sudan on March 30, 2015. He also escaped the country by bribing a Sudanese prison guard.
Their stories echo the earlier case of Sadiq al-Sadiq, who said he agreed to leave for a third country in 2014 and arrived in Ethiopia, before being given on onward ticket to Sudan. He refused to travel. Israeli authorities said Sadiq had agreed to return to Sudan.
Asked about whether she had any information about “voluntary departees” being sent to Sudan instead of “third countries,” Hadad from the Israeli interior ministry told Refugees Deeply by email that no cases had been brought to her attention. When asked whether any asylum seekers left Israel for Cairo on March 30, 2015, and whether any follow-ups were made, Hadad replied: “We have nothing to add.”
Not Everyone Makes It All the Way
It is difficult to estimate how many asylum seekers there are who, like Arzer, left Israel for third countries like Uganda and Rwanda, only to travel onward to Europe. It is even harder to know how many may have died in the Mediterranean Sea.
But Hebrew-speaking asylum seekers with similar stories of deportation to Rwanda and Uganda are increasingly emerging across Europe.
All four asylum seekers interviewed by Refugees Deeply said they knew others like them who have recently reached France, Sweden, Greece, Norway, and the U.K., while Al Jazeera also reported on several others in Germany.
“When friends back in Israel ask me whether they should leave for third countries, I advise them not to,” Arzer said. “Those who got stuck in Uganda are suffering there; there is no future for them. And, yes, I made it to Europe – but not everyone makes it all the way here.”
“It’s not surprising they try to reach a safe haven in Europe, because the testimonies we and others have collected thus far prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the third countries – Uganda and Rwanda – are not safe countries,” says Ovadia-Rosner of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.
“This tragedy illustrates how desperate the asylum seekers in Israel are: Due to detention in Holot facility and lack of any formal status and rights, they agree to leave a relatively safe place and embark on a dangerous journey, without even knowing where they’ll end it.”
*These names have been changed.
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