The Rwandan government denied on Tuesday, January 23, the existence of a secret deal to receive African asylum-seekers forcibly deported from Israel. The far-right Israeli government informed Israel’s Supreme Court about the agreement with Rwanda in November, after the approval by the Knesset of an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, which stipulated that African refugees and asylum seekers will either be deported to Rwanda or imprisoned. The Israeli government’s plan to encourage “voluntary departure” by offering African refugees $3,500 to leave and then deport or imprison anyone who fails to comply by April has been met with fierce public opposition.
“Physicians and medical personnel say ‘No!’ to the deportation of asylum seekers.” (Photo: Physicians for Human Rights)
The Rwanda government’s denial of the agreement with Israel came in the wake of protests by over 2,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees and asylum-seekers at the Rwandan Embassy in Herzlyia on Monday of this week, January 22, calling on that country to back out of any controversial deal to deport them without their consent.
“In reference to the rumors that have recently been disseminated in the media, the government of Rwanda wishes to announce that it has never signed any secret deal with Israel regarding the relocation of African migrants,” Rwanda Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said in a statement. “Rwanda’s position on migrants, wherever they may originate from, was informed and shaped by a sentiment of compassion towards African brothers and sisters who are today perishing on the high seas, being sold in the markets like cattle, or being expelled from countries in which they sought shelter.”
The statement seeks to end speculation over whether Rwanda had agreed to a deal, after Mushikiwabo announced in late November that negotiations had indeed been ongoing with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Rwandan President Paul Kagame have strengthened ties between their two countries during the past few years, with Netanyahu becoming the first prime minister to visit Rwanda and Kagame having visited Israel twice in the past two years.
Communist Party of Israel and Hadash MK Dov Khenin (Joint List) charged, “Netanyahu’s web of lies is being exposed. There is no real examination of asylum requests [by Israel], and there is no real safe destination for deportation. No real solution to the distress of south Tel Aviv’s residents exists.” Khenin lamented the fact that the Israeli government “wants to place in mortal peril people who sought asylum here, even though their requests were not truly examined” and called to “stop this inhumane, amoral and illegal move.”
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants and the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel said in response, “We’re happy to see that Rwanda is unwilling to cooperate with Israel’s strange policy. In light of repeated denials from Rwanda and Uganda, it is time the government provides clear answers and explains to where it is intending to expel refugees. Israel is the only country sending refugees away by force under covert agreements done in the shadows.”
The “Stop the Expulsion” movement said, “The statement released by the Rwandan government proves more than anything else that the Israeli government’s promises to ensure the well-being of those being expelled are empty. This will lead to the deaths of thousands of people. It’s not too late yet for the Israeli government to take back its decision and reexamine the situation.”
Some 400 medical personnel — about 300 of them doctors — have signed a letter addressed to the director of the Population and Immigration Authority, Shlomo Mor-Yosef, in which they protest Israel’s expulsion plan. The doctors, including hospital department heads, said the planned expulsion constitutes “a violation of the Hippocratic Oath.”
“As doctors, caregivers and health professionals, we cannot stand idly by while the lives, bodies and souls of our patients are at stake. Our silence is tantamount to complicity with ones of the most grievous wounds humanity has ever seen,” the doctors wrote.
The doctors call on the government to cancel the expulsion and find a humane solution that will allow the asylum seekers their rights to safety and dignity. “Being committed to the commandment: cause no harm, we are horrified by the very thought that instead of serving as a place of refuge to these victims who fled genocide, torture, violence and rape, we are perpetuating the continuation of evil,” wrote the doctors. They added: “None of them are afforded protection and there is no obligation to examine the asylum seeker’s condition to ensure that he or she will have continued and appropriate treatment in Rwanda.”
The doctors also note that many of the asylum seekers are being treated in their hospitals and clinics and the expulsion decision impairs their ability to treat them. “We try to treat them to the best of our ability and take note of their difficult life stories. This fact does not allow us to remain silent in the face of the decision to expel them, a decision that has the potential to lay waste to our efforts to heal them,” they wrote.
Among the signatories are the former Director of the Health Ministry Dr. Eitan Chai; Director of Wolfson Medical Center and the former Assistant Director of the Health Ministry Dr. Yitzhok Berlovich; Assistant Director of Shiva Medical Center Prof. Rafi Walden; The Director of Oncology at Shiva, Prof. Bela Kaufman; and dozens of other senior medical professionals. Joining them are hundreds of doctors, nurses, medical laboratory and radiology technicians and social workers.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), the organization that initiated the letter, said: “Since Sunday, when we publicized the letter and called on doctors and medical professionals to join the protest against the expulsion, we have been swamped with inquiries. Many do not suffice with a signature alone but express a desire to participate in additional activities and want to shout in the name of the asylum seekers ‘I oppose the expulsion!'”
On Tuesday, January 23, nineteen human rights activists submitted a petition to the Supreme Court to freeze the decision the government says it signed with Rwanda. They are asking that the court halt proceedings until the Knesset works out pertinent legislation. The petition, initiated by Sigal Kook Avivi, Yael Agur and Gilaad Lieberman is directed at the Prime Minister, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Interior Minister Arye Deri, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. The court ordered the state to respond to the petition by Thursday.
The petition argues that the ministers have no right to formulate such an unprecedented agreement, which they see as an irremovable moral blemish and that only the Knesset is authorized to decide such matters.
They claim that the monetary payments made to Rwanda mean that every citizen, including those opposing the expulsion, becomes an accomplice to the act and an unwilling supporter to the Rwandan dictatorship, and argue that “if it is indeed true, as the Rwandan government asserts, that there is no agreement in place, then on what legal grounds can the asylum seekers turn to the Rwandan justice system? They will be considered infiltrators over there just as they are here by the [Israeli] government.”