Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: REUTERS
Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: REUTERS

Tel Aviv — Israel is finalising a deal to deport thousands of African migrants to Uganda under a new scheme after agreements with Rwanda and the UN’s refugee agency to find homes for those expelled fell through.

About 4,000 migrants have left Israel for Uganda and Rwanda since 2013 under a voluntary programme, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under pressure from his supporters to expel more.

In January, Israel started handing out notices to male migrants from Eritrea and Sudan giving them three months to take the voluntary deal with a plane ticket and $3,500 or risk being thrown in jail.

The government said from April it would start forced deportations, but rights groups challenged the move and Israel’s Supreme Court has issued a temporary injunction to give more time for the petitioners to argue against the plan.

Government representatives told the court on Tuesday that an envoy was in an African country finalising a deportation deal after an arrangement with Rwanda fell through. They did not name the country in the open court session, though Israeli MPs previously said they were planning to deport migrants to Rwanda and Uganda. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely also identified Uganda and Rwanda in comments leaked to Israeli Army Radio.

After the Rwanda deal fell through, the government struck an agreement with the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) to relocate 16,250 migrants to western countries but Netanyahu scrapped it after an outcry from right-wing politicians furious that thousands more would be allowed to stay.

The fate of tens of thousands of migrants who entered Israel illegally through Egypt and were granted temporary visas has posed a moral dilemma for a state founded as a national home for Jews. Israeli rights groups say the country can absorb the 37,000 migrants still there, or should find them safe destinations such as those agreed under the defunct UNHCR deal.

The groups have accused Netanyahu, who is under police investigation for corruption, of playing political games to appeal to his right-wing supporters.

The government calls the migrants "infiltrators" and says they have come to find work. The migrants and rights groups say they are asylum seekers fleeing persecution.

The UNHCR and rights groups are also concerned because many of the Africans who left previously for Rwanda and Uganda voluntarily did not get the protection they were promised and some ended up back on the migration trail.

Both countries have denied having any deals with Israel to resettle migrants. Uganda, a key western ally in the fight against Islamist militants in East Africa, also denied there were discussions about accepting deportees under the new scheme.

"We are not aware of any Israeli envoy here. Let Israelis tell you who that envoy is going to sign an agreement with, sign with who? On what date are they signing?" Okello Oryem, Uganda’s junior foreign affairs minister, told Reuters.

At the Supreme Court hearing in Jerusalem, a judge asked the state officials why Uganda was denying the deal if there was one. The state said it would provide the court with an explanation in a closed session.

Five migrants interviewed by Reuters said they had been told by immigration officials in 2018 that they could go to Uganda or Rwanda, if they chose to avoid detention.