KAMPALA, Uganda — Every few months for 10 years, Ben would go to an immigration office in Tel Aviv to renew his temporary visa, and every time he’d be greeted with the same response.
“They told me if you need a better life, just take your money and go to Uganda; you can live there good,” Ben said.
The Ministry of Interior’s Assisted Voluntary Return program offered him a $3,500 cash grant, travel documents and a one-way plane ticket. After years getting the same response, and with few other options, he took the cash, hoping to bring his wife and two kids once he got set up.
That was two years ago. He’s been living in limbo ever since — too scared to return to his home country of Eritrea and denied even the most basic rights afforded to refugees living in Uganda. His kids remain in Israel, where they, too, face an uncertain fate.
“I’m scared for my kids, for the future of my kids,” said Ben, 39. “I’m scared for my life.”
Ben fled Eritrea’s indefinite military service in 2004 and traveled to Israel, where he sought refuge. But because of Israel’s harsh anti-refugee policy, which classifies people like Ben as “infiltrators” instead of refugees, he toiled for 10 years without rights before taking the government’s offer and leaving. For Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel, Ben’s experience is the norm: Since 2013, only 10 Eritreans have been granted refugee status in Israel, less than 1 percent of all applications.
“Where do I put the years I lived in Israel? Nine and a half years I lived there,” Ben said. “Where can I put it? It’s my life.”
But Ben may also be one of the lucky ones. Following Eritrea’s historic peace deal with Ethiopia earlier this year, Israel could be readying bilateral negotiations with the historically hermetic country. The goal: to repatriate the tens of thousands or Eritreans still living in Israel, a move that human rights activists say could quickly spell disaster for one of the world’s most vulnerable refugee populations.
Migration experts and human rights activists can point to recent history. In 2012, Israel was one of the first Western countries to remove protection for the South Sudanese when it reached a deal with then newly-independent South Sudan to repatriate hundreds of asylum seekers. Within a year, war returned to South Sudan, and families were forced to flee again.
“Today they are not in South Sudan,” said Shani Bar-Tuvia, a researcher on refugee policy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Bar-Tuvia said most South Sudanese repatriated from Israel in 2012 are now either dead, displaced, or in another refugee camp.
"I'm terrified that this will happen also with the Eritreans," she said.
VICE News travelled to Tel Aviv and Kampala to speak with Eritrean and Sudanese refugees firsthand to hear their stories of life in, and after, Israel. These are their stories.
“I CAN ONLY HOPE, NOT PLAN”
Solomon Gebreyohans, Eritrean asylum seeker, Tel Aviv
Like thousands before him, Solomon Gebreyohans, 29, fled dictatorship in Eritrea. First he tried Europe, by way of Libya, but after six months of failing to find a way to cross the Mediterranean, he gave up. He turned to the next best option: Israel.
“To save my life, I came to Egypt, and through the Sinai.”
But in Israel, he was quickly confronted with the reality of a dysfunctional asylum system.
Solomon has been waiting for a decision on his asylum application since 2014. Like the vast majority of his fellow Eritrean applicants, his inquiries have gone unanswered by the government. So every few months, he goes to the immigration office to renew his temporary visa, where Israeli officers try to convince him to leave the country altogether.
“It’s very uncomfortable,” Solomon said. “They don't know what will happen to me in those countries. And I know what will happen to me.”
Solomon lives in Tel Aviv where he works as a translator for local nonprofit Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF). He also works various service industry jobs to cover his costs. Solomon has 20 percent of his salary withheld by the Ministry of Interior, which he will only receive when he leaves the country. They call it the deposit tax, and it’s designed to dissuade people like him from settling here.
“I’m just working here,” Solomon said. “I can only have hope, not a plan.”
He was already worried about his future. Then news of the peace agreement in Eritrea broke, and now he’s filled with dread. Going back to Eritrea, he insists, is not an option.
“I can’t, I can’t,” Solomon said. “It’s the same situation. Nothing has changed.”
“I WANT A PEACEFUL PLACE”
Alul Gabriel and Angelina Ngor, South Sudanese refugees, Kampala
Alul Gabriel knows firsthand the risks of being forced out of Israel and back into a country on the brink of war. That's what happened to her in 2012, when she and her mother were deported back to South Sudan. She spent most of her childhood in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew.
Alul, 19, and her mother, Angelina Ngor, were deported soon after their South Sudan homeland declared independence.
“We came back to Juba to find the troubles,” Angelina said. “They forced people to return to their country while their country was still in turmoil.”
Civil war broke out soon after they arrived. They had to flee a second time, this time crossinginto Uganda, where South Sudanese refugees are recognized almost immediately and given access to work and services.
“Our life here is extremely difficult,” Angelina said.
“I don't want this life we are living,” Alul added.” I want to be in a peaceful place.”
Alul attends school in Kampala with 200 other kids who spent their young lives in Israel, thanks to a scholarship from the Come True project, an Israeli-run charity that supports deportee kids from Israel.
Jacob Berry is the charity’s manager and himself a refugee from Israel. He now supports Alul and many Hebrew-speaking South Sudanese people who have been displaced twice by war at home, after Israel forced them out.
“If someone is in the war so you cannot just bring him back home, you have to get a solution,” Berry said. “You have to have future plans for him. Like where are you sending him? Is there protection where you're sending him? Are you going to provide something for him until he stands for himself afterwards?”
“I CAN’T LIVE LIKE THIS”
Aman, Eritrean asylum seeker, Kampala
After six years in Israel, Aman was given an an ultimatum: risk spending an indefinite period in the country’s infamous Holot detention center, or take a free trip to Uganda.
“I’m not a dictator, I’m not a criminal. Why am I going to a prison?” Aman said.
He has been waiting for legal status here ever since.
“Every hour, every minute, every moment, they can ask me [for] papers. If I don't have [them], I should have to [pay some] money. So, I can't live like this.”
To fast-track his application for asylum, Aman did what Ugandan immigration officials recommended: He lied. He told them he’d arrived as a refugee from South Sudan, instead of Israel.
“If you are coming from Israel,” Aman told us, “you have to lie, or you have to pay more money.”
About 1,700 Africans like Aman have come to Uganda under the Israeli government’s Assisted Voluntary Return program, according to an Amnesty International report released in June. Though the countries don’t have an official agreement in place, Israel continues to offer its asylum seekers one-way tickets to Uganda.
In real terms, that practice means Israel’s rejected asylum seekers arrive in Uganda without paperwork or protections. According to the Amnesty report, arrivals from Israel were taken around immigration control at Entebbe airport and stripped of their travel documents. Once in Uganda, they were pressured to deny they even came from Israel.
Aman regrets taking the deal, and thinks he was duped by the Israeli government. He tells his friends back in Tel Aviv as much.
“It's not true. It's all a lie,” Aman said. “You don't have any rights in Kampala, Uganda. So you have to stay in Israel; it’s better. That's what I'm telling them.”