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Moving under Threats: The Treacherous Journeys of Refugees who ‘Voluntary’ Departed from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda and Reached Europe



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Guest post by Shahar Shoham, Liat Bolzman and Lior Birger. Shahar is a PhD candidate for Area and Global Studies at The Institute for Asian and African Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin and a grantee of the Hans-Böckler Foundation in Germany. Liat holds a M.A. in Social Work and Human Rights at the Alice Salomon University in Berlin and is a former grantee of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Germany. Lior is a PhD candidate for Social Work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Fellow at the joint program of the Hebrew University and the Free University of Berlin –‘Human Rights Under Pressure’. This is the final instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series organised by Maayan Ravid on ‘Border Control and the Criminalisation of African Asylum Seekers in Israel’.

In 2013, Israel signed secret agreements with Rwanda and Uganda, to which it began transferring Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. The Implementation of Israel’s ‘Voluntary Departure’ policy started in late 2013 vis-à-vis Eritrean and Sudanese residing in Israel, named: ‘Regulation of Removal to Third Countries’. As of September 2017, 3,959 Eritreans and Sudanese left Israel under these arrangements. The ‘voluntary nature of these departures was questioned from the start, as Eritreans and Sudanese had to choose between detention in ‘Holot’ facility and signing a document to ‘willingly’ leave. 

In an escalation of the ‘Voluntary Departure’ policy, the State of Israel announced a plan in January 2018 to forcibly deport Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers residing in the country to ‘third countries’. In April 2018, following massive international and local criticism and social protests, this deportation plan has been canceled.

This post focuses on how the ‘Voluntary Departure’ policy affected the lives of those who left Israel. It will argue that in contrast to the promises made by the State of Israel, those departing under this policy were not granted protection in Rwanda or Uganda, forcing them to embark on a dangerous journey in search of safety, ending in Europe.

The grim reality of what awaited those who departed from Israel is based on a qualitative research project we conducted, including interviews with 19 Eritrean refugees who left Israel to Rwanda and Uganda between 2014-2016 and eventually gained protection in Europe. The interviews were conducted in Germany and Holland between July and December 2017. The interviewees arrived in Israel between 2008 and 2012. Their average duration of living in Israel was five years. 16 of the interviewees were granted refugee status in the European countries they reached and three additional interviewees were in the midst of the asylum application process at the time of the research.

The analysis of the interviewees’ testimonies revealed that none of them were given the promised opportunity to apply for asylum in Rwanda or Uganda, a promise made by the Israeli authorities as part of the efforts to force them to leave. Their lack of identity documents exposed them to robberies, threats and arrest, leading them to embark on a dangerous journey that included passing through South Sudan, Sudan and Libya in search of protection. Throughout the journey, the interviewees were subjected to human trafficking, incarceration, the threat of forcible deportation to Eritrea, harsh conditions of starvation, violence, slavery in torture camps in Libya and a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Europe. The repeated accounts of the interviewees' journeys will be narrated and analyzed below.

Source:  ‘Better a prison in Israel than dying on the way’: Testimonies of refugees who “voluntarily” departed Israel to Rwanda and Uganda and Gained Protection in Europe” (Birger, Shoham and Bolzman 2018)


All interviewees testified that upon landing in Rwanda the travel document produced by Israel, the only identity document in their possession, was taken away. They were transferred to a guarded hotel and were prevented, under threat, from leaving. None of them were given the opportunity to apply for asylum. Lacking identity documents and exposed to robberies and threats they were forced to embark on dangerous journeys. Dawit, who left Israel to Rwanda in December 2015, described it as follows: ‘We said we want to go to the UNHCR… But they tell us ‘no, no, no, you have a permit for three days… If you do not move to another country

‘Stop Deportation of Refugees from Israel’, demonstration held in Berlin in front of the Rwandan embassy on 7.2.18. The demonstration was part of a worldwide movement calling to the Rwandan government not to accept refugees deported from Israel (Photo: Shahar Shoham)\n


Due to hardships faced in South Sudan, all interviewees continued their journey north to Sudan. The journey lasted two to three weeks, and was described by many as a highly dangerous border crossing. They walked, constantly fearful of being caught by the police. Tesfay, who left Israel in 2015, shared that he drank one small bottle of water per day and did not eat for two weeks. The road was described as replete with robbers. After a long hazardous journey, interviewees reached the capital Khartoum, where many were jailed for varying periods of time and would be released only by paying bribes. Furthermore, the dread of being forcibly returned to Eritrea from Sudan was apparent among many interviewees, who reported that agents of the Eritrean secret service are operating freely in Sudan. This fear was among the main factors pushing the men to continue their journey north to Libya.

Sahara Desert and Libya

From Sudan, interviewees proceeded on a journey through the Sahara Desert to Libya. They were deprived of necessities, experienced violence and life-threatening situations. The blistering heat, the scarcity of water and food, the travel conditions, the many car accidents and the violence meted out by the human traffickers resulted in the death of many in the Sahara. Some of the interviewees knew friends and relatives who died along the way while others witnessed such deaths with their own eyes. Some testified that they were able to bury the dead while others reported that the vehicle simply kept driving, leaving the bodies behind. Tesfay, who left Israel in December 2015, testified about sexual violence committed by the traffickers: ‘Girls, he would take her, take her to sex. If you say ‘no’, he killed you… there’s nothing you can do’.

Following a precarious journey, human traffickers brought the interviewees to camps in Libya, in which hundreds of people were jailed together, being held for up to several months. Those jailed in these camps are raped, subjected to daily violence, denied food and water, denied medical treatment and enslaved (forced to perform labor without payment). Many became ill and some died. When describing these ordeals, some of the interviewees recalled the torture camps in Sinai, in which they were held on route to Israel. As Isayas claimed: ‘there are no words to describe this.’

Crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe

Upon being released from the camps, the interviewees embarked on another life-threatening journey, trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea on overloaded boats. The crossing was described as exceptionally hazardous; in many cases, the boat’s motor stopped working. The lucky ones were saved by rescue ships. In Europe, within one to several months from the moment of applying for asylum, 16 of the interviewees received refugee status, while the applications of three of them are still in process. All interviewees reported back to their friends in Israel, as Tsegay states ‘It’s better in Israel in prison than dying on the way’.

Interview conducted in Holland, August 2017 (Photo: Shahar Shoham)


The testimonies here portray a clear picture: the promises made by Israel to those ‘voluntarily’ departing to Rwanda and Uganda, which included granting legal status and protection in Rwanda and Uganda, were not kept. Thus, interviewees were forced to continue their journeys in search of a safe haven, during which they were exposed to robbery, imprisonment, torture and the threat of death. These conclusions are in congruence with findings of previous reports published by Israeli and international NGOs, including the UNHCR, referring to the implementation and consequences of Israel’s ‘Voluntary Departure’ policy. Our research confirmed that the alarming patterns documented by previous reports have not changed. The testimonies presented here reveal additional stages in the journey of those who departed which were under-documented in previous publications, especially regarding the treacherous experiences in Libya and the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea.

These testimonies serve as a warning sign in light of the plan to forcibly deport Eritrean and Sudanese residing in Israel. The forced deportation plan was recently suspended, yet the ‘Voluntary Departure’ policy is still in place. Thus, the testimonies should be read as a call to stop this policy and to regularize the status of asylum-seekers residing in Israel.

Note: The authors are independent researchers with years of experience working with refugee communities residing in Israel under the auspices of several NGOs. The findings of this research were recently published in a report: ‘Better A Prison in Israel than Dying on the Way: Testimonies of refugees who “voluntarily” departed Israel to Rwanda and Uganda and Gained Protection in Europe’ (Birger, Shoham and Bolzman 2018) . There is a movement resisting the proposed policy of forced deportation from Israel, and the authors hope supporters from around the world will join. All names mentioned in this blogpost are pseudonyms.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Shoham, S., Bolzman, L. and Birger, L. (2018) Moving under Threats: The Treacherous Journeys of Refugees who ‘Voluntary’ Departed from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda and Reached Europe. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/10/moving-under (Accessed [date]).


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