JERUSALEM – Israel has begun sending dozens of African migrants to Uganda, an Israeli official said Wednesday, a move that has sparked concerns that they are being coerced into going to a country that may not keep them safe.
The resettlement of people in Uganda, and perhaps other countries, marks a new phase in Israel's campaign to rid itself of thousands of Africans who have poured into the country in recent years.
Migrants and activists said the arrangement, which includes a one-way ticket and a stipend, is questionable because it is unclear if there is an official agreement with Uganda that would secure the migrants' status. They said the new arrivals risk deportation to their home countries, where they may face conflict or persecution.
Uganda, for its part, denied any deal. The Israeli official said Israel paid $3,500 each in recent weeks to about 30 migrants who agreed to leave for Uganda, though he, too, said there was no formal agreement in place. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media on the matter.
Israel says the relocations are done on a voluntary basis.
About 50,000 Africans, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have poured into Israel in recent years across the southern border with Egypt.
The Africans say they are asylum-seekers fleeing persecution and danger. Israel says they are looking for employment, but it does not deport them because they could face danger in their conflict-ridden homelands. Critics say Israel has dragged its feet on reviewing the migrants' claims for refugee status.
Israel has grappled with how to deal with the influx, which has caused friction with locals and alarmed authorities who say Israel's Jewish character is threatened by the presence of the Africans.
Israel has built a fence along the border with Egypt, all but stopping the influx, passed a law that allows for the migrants' detention and said it has a deal with an unidentified country to host some of the Africans until they are able to return home. It has used financial incentives in the past to encourage other African migrants to return home.
Rights groups say Israel has an obligation to protect the migrants, in part because of Israel's history of taking in Jewish refugees following the Holocaust, and because it is a signatory to the U.N. refugee convention.
"We are very concerned that these deportations are clearly not taking into consideration the safety and well-being of the deportees," said Elizabeth Tsurkov, of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an advocacy group.
Ugandan officials denied any deal was in place. "We are not privy to such an arrangement," said David Kazungu, a Ugandan government commissioner who is in charge of refugees.
Israel's Interior Ministry and the prime minister's office declined to comment.
Tsurkov said Israel's policies toward the migrants have forced many to accept the relocation offer. A recent amendment to an Israeli "infiltrators" law allows Israel to detain newly arrived migrants for up to a year.
The Interior Ministry also has begun ordering more veteran migrants to report to a new detention center in the southern desert when they try to renew visas that previously allowed them to stay in the country.
The Holot detention center is meant to be an "open" facility, where residents can come and go. But they must sign in several times a day and sleep there, making it impossible for them to stray far or hold jobs. Those who violate the rules, or reject what Israel calls "invitations" to report there, can be sent to a nearby prison.
The offers to relocate to a third country, and the threat of being sent to Holot, are part of a broader strategy to rid Israel of anyone it determines does not meet refugee status.
In a speech last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to "continue to work to return the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who crossed the border."
One Eritrean migrant who accepted the offer to move to Uganda said he did so because his options in Israel – detention or economic hardship – were bleak.
He said that upon entering Uganda, he was given a two-month tourist visa, and he was not certain what his status would be once that period expired.
The 32-year-old man, who asked not to be identified for fear he would be sought out by Ugandan authorities, had worked menial jobs in Israel for two years.
"I didn't want to go to Holot. That's why I left," said the man, who spoke to The Associated Press by phone from Kampala, Uganda. "Without a visa, you can't work. Without work you have no money. If you don't have money, how do you live in Israel?"
He said he approached Israel's Interior Ministry to ask how he could leave the country. He was offered a free ticket and some cash if he went back to Eritrea or else a free ticket to fly to Uganda.
Fearing for his life should he return to his homeland, which is widely seen as one of the worst human rights violators, he chose Uganda, where he has lived for the past month.
Jack Zaidan, a migrant from Sudan's Darfur region who is still in Israel, said at least five Sudanese migrants he knows accepted the offer because of the situation in Israel. He said their fate in Uganda was uncertain.
"There is no protection in Uganda. You arrive and two days later police will catch you and send you away," he said.
Associated Press reporter Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda, and Associated Press writer Daniel Estrin contributed to this report.