Rwanda's Kagame and Uganda's Museveni Betrayed Africa If They Accepted Deported Refugees From Israel

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Haaretz reports that young Wadjungah Mohammed who fled from Darfur has committed suicide. Screenshot Haaretz.


[Commentary]


The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported yesterday that El-Al flight pilots have refused to fly deported African refugees from Israel to third countries; this article was of more than a passing interest to me. In an earlier article the newspaper reports how a young refugee from Darfur committed suicide out of desperation. 

The news took me back to 2012 when we joined Eritreans in New York protesting at the Israel Consulate about the poor treatment of African refugees in Israel. The world came to know about the plight of African refugees as a result of the savage attacks on Africans in Tel Aviv, when a mob driven by hate and racism went on a rampage shouting "Blacks Out." There was burning and looting of African businesses, fire bombing of a kindergarten, and attacks on any African in sight including the stabbing in the head of a one-year old child during one night in May, 2012, in the Tel Aviv neighborhood where the Africans lived.

No one was held accountable for the hate crimes. The mob attack which was egged on by some right wing Likud politicians. Level-minded people and the world was shocked considering that many Israelis recalled Kristallnacht. There were about 60,000 African refugees primarily from Eritrea and Sudan fleeing repressive regimes, civil wars in Darfur and South Sudan. Many left their homes crossing the Sudan into Egypt and the Sinai desert and entering Israel seeking asylum. The African migrants fit the definition of refugees according to the 1951 Refugee Convention to which Israel is a signatory.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government refused to recognize them as refugees and instead insisted on labeling them "infiltrators" with all the emotional baggage that the term carries in the Israeli psyche.

Writing for Yediot Ahronot, the bestselling daily in Israel, columnist Ben Dror Yemini advocates for African men to be “transferred out of Israeli cities into desert camp centers in order to prevent romantic relationship between them and Jewish Israeli women”. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu viewed the influx of African migrants as a “threat to Israel's Jewish social fabric” and would cancel out its image as a “Jewish and democratic state.”

His fellow extremist Likud parliamentarian Miri Regev considers the African refugees as a "cancer in our body." Right wing extremists have demonized the Africans as "spreaders of disease and as incorrigible criminals.” Does it sound familiar to what we began to hear in the U.S. presidential campaign four years later? A reality TV star was listening. Scores of rabbis issued an edict that it was a sin against God to rent apartments to African refugees. The internationally known Israeli writer David Grossman felt "ashamed and embarrassed."

The Israeli Knesset passed the notorious anti-infiltration law at that time. “Infiltrators” were given the choice of deportation or imprisonment for three years or more. The Holot prison became the largest detention center in the world. Some of the refugees who were forced to accept deportation ended up drowning in the Mediterranean Sea as they attempted to make it to Europe while others fell victims to beheading by ISIS in Libya. Others like Wadjungah Mohammed who fled Darfur after his parents were killed and had been living in limbo in Israel since 2009 took his own life out of desperation.

Now comes word that the Israeli government has arrived at an agreement with Uganda and Rwanda by which close to the 40,000 African refugees languishing in the detention centers are to be flown to those countries in exchange for $5,000 a head. This is an illegal trade in human beings.
Some pilots of the Israel national airline El-Al have gone on record refusing to fly these deportees out of Israel to an uncertain future. “I won’t fly refugees to their deaths, I won’t take part in that barbarism,” is what one pilot is quoted as saying. This is a courageous and principled stand by the pilots and shows humanity at its best.

Uganda and Rwanda have denied that there is such an agreement. If indeed true, they are complicit in a criminal enterprise of what can only be characterized as a form of human trafficking and is in contravention of the non-refoulement of refugees enshrined in the 1951 Convention which is intended to prevent the forceful return of people to countries where they can be harmed.

Another disturbing aspect of this sordid story is the alleged participation of Ethiopian Airlines while other Airlines such as Lufthansa and Turkish airlines have refused to fly victims of forced deportation.

Again if indeed true, It saddens me as an Ethiopian to find out that the national carrier which has been rightfully the pride of Ethiopians for decades and a favorite airline among African travelers to be a party to this ignominious act in exchange for few shekels. It goes counter to the airline’s own motto as "The New Spirit of Africa."

Say it ain’t so.

Presidents Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni, of Rwanda and Uganda, respectively, have a lot to answer to Africans both at home and in the Diaspora and to the International community for infringing on the rights of these refugees guaranteed them by the UN convention on Refugees and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Kagame and Museveni need to come clean on this. The dignity of the African is not a commodity to be traded with. Shame on these two countries. It is not too late for Ethiopian Airlines to stop being a party to this despicable transaction and reclaim its reputation -- We are watching.

Mohammed A Nurhussein MD. Chair, United African Congress.
New York City.     

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