In Uganda’s capital Kampala, a sign in Eritrean script points the way to a back alley. There’s a small hotel here with only a few rooms, most of them empty. In room number eight an old man sits on a worn-out sofa. His trousers and shirt are stained and he wears flip-flops. His arms are covered in scars.
The old man’s lawyer sits next to him. Both have requested anonymity. “He has gone through a lot,” says the lawyer. He speaks to his client in Tigrinya, the official language of Eritrea.
The old man — we will call him Aman — describes how he wound up in this dingy hotel in Uganda. And he’s not alone. Aman’s tale is representative of thousands of Eritrean refugees who have been caught up in the deadly nexus of the illicit arms trade … and human trafficking.
The pattern is often the same. Refugees fleeing one of the most repressive regimes in the world get stuck and eventually arrested in Israel, which bills itself as the only democracy in the Middle East.
Years later, Israel deports them to Rwanda, which passes them on to Uganda and sometimes South Sudan, where the refugees suffer harassment by agents of the regime they were trying to escape in the first place. Their only hope is to begin the dangerous journey through the Sahara again, paying thousands of dollars in fees and bribes to traffickers and border guards.
Many die along the way.
In exchange for helping Israel to get rid of its unwanted refugee population, East African military and intelligence officers travel to Israel to receive training and go on shopping sprees for high-tech military hardware. Refugees, especially from Eritrea, have become a kind of currency in arms deals between some of the world’s shadiest and most corrupt governments.
Eritreans have been fleeing their home country in droves for years now — and with good reason. The regime of the East African country on the Red Sea is second only to North Korea in its repressiveness. Many Eritrean refugees flee the country to escape compulsory military service. Officially instituted by Pres. Isaias Afewerki in 1995, conscription was supposed to provide the necessary manpower for Eritrea’s army. But it quickly devolved into an instrument of repression and exploitation.
For those who can’t afford to bribe officers or government officials, enlistment is essentially indefinite and targets both men and women up to the age of 50. Conscripts receive very little military training and are forced to work on infrastructure projects and in agriculture while receiving less than $30 per month in compensation. Female conscripts are frequently victims of sexual violence.
While some young adults manage to dodge the draft, they live in constant danger of being discovered and can’t access higher education or formal employment. Refugees interviewed for one 2013 study reported to have served an average of six years in the military prior to their escape, with some having served more than double that. For all intents and purposes, military service in Eritrea is a form of slavery.
Aman, the old man in the hotel, says he didn’t flee because of conscription, but the rest of his story is similar to those who do. A high-ranking officer in the Eritrean army, he had to flee the country in 2008 after refusing to carry out an order from Afewerki.
Passing through Sudan and Egypt, he tried to reach Israel by crossing the Sinai Peninsula. There he was abducted by local bedouins. His family had to pay them a $25,000 ransom. If he had refused or had been unable to pay, his abductors threatened to cut out his kidney and sell it on the black market.
Aman’s experience of abduction and ransom is the norm rather than the exception for Eritrean refugees who pass through the Sinai, says Mirjam van Reisen, a Dutch scholar and co-author of the 2014 report “The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond.”
“Because of the long history of Eritreans fleeing their home country, they form a large, tightly-knit expatriate community abroad,” van Reisen tells War Is Boring. “Combined with the desperate need of people to escape the Eritrean regime, this makes them an attractive target for abductions and ransom demands.”
Van Reisen’s report details many cases of Eritreans who suffered tremendous abuse on their way from Eritrea to Israel and other destinations, at the hands of both criminals and government security agents.
Aman’s captors set him free on the Egyptian-Israeli border, from where he was able to cross into Israel.
In theory, his plight should have ended here. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Israel is a party, host countries are required to treat refugees fairly, give them access to the labor market and guarantee their freedom of movement. Importantly, host countries are explicitly forbidden to expel refugees, especially “in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened.”
Unfortunately for Aman and thousands of other refugees from Eritrea and beyond, the Israeli government completely disregards its obligations under international law. Politicians refer to refugees as “infiltrators.” Current Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev called displaced people “a cancer in the body” of the nation.
For several years Aman was able to live and work in Israel, cleaning rooms to make a living and learning Hebrew. Every three months, he stood in line at the immigration authority to prolong his papers.
That changed suddenly in July 2014. “They took my papers and locked me up in Holot,” Aman says. Both Holot and nearby Saharonim are camps in the middle of the desert close to the Egyptian border. Around 50,000 refugees, most of them Africans, are housed at these facilities. While inmates of Holot are allowed to own mobile phones and keep in contact with the outside world, Saharonim is comparable to an actual prison.
Both facilities represent a clear breach of Israel’s obligations under international law, organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have said. Former interior minister Eli Yishai made clear their purpose. As long as Israel was unable to deport all asylum seekers, he said he would “lock them up to make their lives miserable.”
And in December 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that his party would move to the “second stage, that of repatriating the infiltrators who are already here.” Every month people would be repatriated “until the tens of thousands of people who are here illegally return to their countries of origin.”
Officially, those refugees who leave do so “voluntarily,” but in reality they face either indefinite detention or simply have no choice at all, as was the case with Aman.
Eighteen days after his initial arrest, he says, he and five other Eritreans were escorted by uniformed security guards and two men in civilian clothes to the airport in Tel Aviv. He didn’t go through any passport or security checks and did not receive any documents. Instead, an official gave him $3,500 in cash, for which he had to sign a receipt, and then he got put on a plane.
Most refugees get deported on commercial airlines such as Turkish Airlines or Ethiopian Airways, but Aman says his plane “was small.” The other passengers were official-looking and wore passes on lanyards around their necks. Aman says he thinks they were diplomats. There were also bodyguards on board, complete with small Secret Service-style earpieces.
Nobody told him where the flight was going to. “Only when I saw the airport building, I knew — we are in Rwanda,” he says.
The official-looking passengers left the plane and were driven away in sedans with blue lights. “I was led away by Rwandan agents in civilian clothes,” Aman recalls. Again, he passed no official controls or checks. Nothing documents his entry into Rwanda. Together with the other Eritreans he was driven to a house in the capital Kigali. “The guy who set us up at the house introduced himself as John.”
Many Eritreans, even those who arrive in Rwanda on commercial airliners, confirm this chain of events. All describe the same house and the same “John,” who told them that the Israeli government would pick up the tab for three nights of lodging. John would return on the second day and tell them that a car would wait for them the next morning and would bring them to Uganda. The car ride would cost them each $250.
Aman was brought by said car to the hills on the Ugandan border, from where he was guided by a shepherd across the border, again without passing through an official crossing. At no point was he offered the opportunity to apply for asylum in Rwanda, as would be required by international law.
On the Ugandan side, a minibus awaited the Eritreans. The driver again demanded $250, this time to bring the group to Kampala. Just outside the city, the driver received a phone call and stopped. Shortly thereafter, an SUV pulled up and two Eritreans stepped out. They greeted the driver, demanded more money from the passengers and finally brought them to the dingy hotel in one of Kampala’s back alleys.
It is hard to overstate how irregular this procedure is. The techniques employed in the transfer of refugees such as Aman from Israel to Rwanda and onward to Uganda are comparable to those of sophisticated human-trafficking operations. But the details leave no doubt that all of this happens with government participation.
Both Rwanda and Uganda are tightly-run authoritarian states with incredibly well-resourced militaries and intelligence services. There is no conceivable way that the security establishments of both countries are not aware of the movements of refugees like Aman, and in Rwanda’s case the government seems to be actively participating.
But officially, all participating governments deny the existence of a deal to facilitate the deportation of refugees from Israel. “Israel is a good friend of Rwanda and we work together closely, especially in the fields of agriculture and technology,” Rwanda’s foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo said. But there is “no special package” for the refugee question, she added.
While this “has been discussed” in earlier negotiations with Israel, “negotiations ultimately weren’t finalized.” Ugandan authorities also said that they were unaware of any deal.
So why is this trade in refugees conducted in secret when the Israeli public should be overwhelmingly in favor of it and African countries such as Rwanda could find ways to justify their actions? Maybe the reason for so much secrecy is not the government-sanctioned human trafficking, but what Rwanda, Uganda and other African countries get in return for taking refugees from Israel.
When the deal was first discussed around 2013, the Israeli government openly floated the idea of providing military hardware and training at heavily discounted prices, or even for free, to the participating African countries. The packages would also include agricultural and technological assistance.
At the time, government officials said that they were “close” to finalizing these deals. And indeed, Rwanda entered into a partnership agreement with Israel in 2014, and Israeli businesses invested heavily in the Ugandan agricultural sector in the following years. Conspicuously absent from any official celebration of the agreements was any mention of either refugees or arms.
A Ugandan official even told Vice that “no such agreement is in place between Uganda and Israel” and that “Uganda fully respects and encourages state parties to respect rights of refugees, including the principle of ‘non-refoulement’ and burden sharing.”
Strangely, though, this was also the exact period when pro-refugee organizations began to report the first cases of “voluntary” deportations of African refugees to Rwanda and Uganda. And at the same time, Israel suddenly embarked on a program of close cooperation with African countries in the defense sector.
Traditionally, Uganda and Rwanda have been close military allies of the United States and the United Kingdom. America has spent billions of dollars on military training and equipment for East Africa. As a result, the Rwandan and Ugandan militaries are among the most capable and effective on the continent.
While Rwanda’s army primarily focuses on internal security and projecting the country’s influence into the volatile Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as contributing substantial forces to U.N. peacekeeping operations, Uganda has taken on the role of a veritable regional military superpower.
Ugandan soldiers are fighting Al Shabab in Somalia as part of an African Union mission and have, at one point or another, intervened militarily in the majority of countries across the region. Uganda’s military provides the forces that secure Pres. Salva Kiir’s position in the South Sudanese civil war, for example.
Rwanda and Uganda have foreign assistance to thank for these military capabilities. The regimes in both countries rely on a constant flow of modern hardware and training from international partners.
Rwanda is a military state with an all-mighty intelligence community that has virtually stamped out internal dissent. The Rwandan government’s main security challenge today emanates from hostile groups active in eastern Congo. To guard against incursions, the Rwandan military covets aerial surveillance equipment, among them modern long-endurance drones. It also requires training and equipment to guard against terror attacks and bombings inside its own borders.
Likewise, this type of high-tech military hardware and know-how is on the shopping list of the Ugandan military, together with other modern surveillance gear, multi-role fighters and air defenses. Pres. Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, recently faced a highly contested election that only served to underscore his reliance on the security services to guarantee his continued control of the state. For its international adventures, especially in Somalia, the Uganda People’s Defense Forces have to be equipped and trained in counterinsurgency and close-quarters urban combat.
There is a limited number of countries that offer this sophisticated technology and training and would be willing to provide it to Rwanda and Uganda at the prices that these developing countries can afford.
The U.S. and U.K. have pulled back their cooperation over Rwanda’s support for the M23 rebel group in eastern Congo in 2011, and since, Uganda’s Museveni made clear that he has no intentions of relinquishing power any time soon.
Fortunately for both regimes, a few years ago Israel was searching for a solution to its “infiltrator” problem.
Israel is among the world’s top-10 arms and military services exporting countries and has an incredibly well-developed defense industry, largely focused on providing the capabilities that Israel itself needs — high-tech military systems for counterinsurgency and surveillance. Israel is one of the few countries that exports high-endurance surveillance drones, for example. The Israeli military and Israeli contractors are renown for their expertise in counterterrorism training and doctrine.
Israel has a long history of exporting arms to Africa, but the pace of its exports has picked up substantially over the last few years. Sales doubled between 2012 to 2013, around the time that Israeli officials said that deals for trading refugees against arms were close to being finalized. They rose again by around 40 percent in 2014, reaching the second consecutive all-time high of $318 million, a remarkable increase compared to just $77 million in 2009.
The same year, Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman toured several African countries, among the Uganda and Rwanda, with a large group of defense industry executives in tow.
When Uganda’s Museveni visited Israel in 2011, he stopped by the facilities of Israel Aircraft Industries and showed great interest in drones. In the following years, his minister for security Aronda Nyakairima, who also handles immigration, visited Israel frequently. Nyakairima, who has died, was the army’s chief of staff before his government appointment.
Uganda has dramatically expanded its aerial capabilities in recent years, buying Russian Su-30MK multi-role jets and other highly advanced equipment. At Kajjansi Flying School, Uganda’s only flight academy, training is handled by Orlando Barak, an Israeli arms dealer.
Quite a few other Israeli arms dealers are running private security companies in Kampala. When two of them were arrested at Entebbe’s airport in November 2014 in connection with a shady arms deal involving Ugandan special forces, Museveni himself intervened to free them. The special forces, incidentally, are under the command of Museveni’s son, Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
Rwanda for its part formalized its relationship with Israel in 2015, opening an embassy in Tel Aviv. The first ambassador was Col. Joseph Rutabana, who up to that point served as an undersecretary in the Ministry of Defense with responsibility for procurement. His appointment coincided with a marked increase in deportations to Rwanda.
All three countries treat their arms imports and exports as highly confidential matters of national security. Details on individual deals and transfers are virtually non-existent in the public domain. Still, sources with knowledge of the matter have confirmed to War Is Boring, on the condition of anonymity, that military assistance and cooperation between Israel and Rwanda and Uganda is substantial and linked to the willingness of these countries to accept refugees deported from Israel.
On the surface, this may seem to be just a simple act of Realpolitik, the political elites of these countries simply coming together to satisfy their individual political and security needs. But this perspective glosses over the immense personal suffering that results from this intermingling of the trade in arms and people.
These two trades are responsible for some of the worst suffering in the world, but they are also among the least regulated trading regimes in existence. Where the transfer of foodstuffs and consumer goods is tightly controlled and governments have subjected themselves to independent judicial bodies for oversight, the trade in weapons of all kinds, as well as the treatment of refugees, is governed only by some international agreements that profess great respect to national sovereignty and security. Non-complying states have to fear few consequences apart from diplomatic finger-wagging.
Of course, most refugees would prefer to live free in Uganda rather than be imprisoned in Israel, and deportations to a third country are not illegal in all circumstances. But with neither Israel nor Rwanda nor Uganda admitting to any bilateral deals, the refugees face huge problems upon arrival.
“Eritreans are in a very precarious situation when they arrive in Uganda,” Meron Estefanos, a human rights activist and journalist, tells War Is Boring. “The Israeli authorities take away their documents and because the participating governments deny that there is a deal, they have no residency or refugee status in East Africa. Especially Eritreans also live in constant fear of being in some way forced to return to their home country.”
The Eritrean regime treats escapees like traitors, sentencing them to essentially indefinite prison under the harshest and most brutal conditions imaginable.
An obvious solution would be for Uganda to recognize those deported from Israel as refugees and provide them with official documents, but it seems likely that given the scale of the trade, Uganda has made a conscious decision to avoid giving Eritreans and others protection under the law. As many as 262 asylum seekers have “voluntarily” left Israel every month since the beginning of 2015, according to the government.
But these are only a fraction of the up to 50,000 people who are still locked up in Holot and Saharonim, all of whom likely will be deported as soon as possible. Uganda’s government may hope that by not providing these people with permanent status, most will choose to use their money from the Israeli government to try to reach Europe again.
Estefanos says that because they live in constant fear of being caught and arrested by the Ugandan police or discovered by Eritrean intelligence, many Eritreans decide to make another attempt at reaching Israel or Europe. “The money that they receive from Israel lasts them only to Khartoum,” the Sudanese capital, Meron says. On the way they have to pass through South Sudan, which is still in the throes of a civil war.
Those who manage to come up with the funds to continue their journey are likely to again find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous traffickers, professional abductors or even on one of the many boats that have dragged their passengers to the bottom of the Mediterranean. Their suffering is testament to the intermingling of nationalist and securitized politics, regional military grandstanding, domestic suppression and a system of international trade that makes it easy to treat people like currency to be exchanged for arms.
And it may be the case that instead of facing international scrutiny, Israel’s approach will find imitators. With many European countries struggling with the influx of Syrian and African refugees, some might be interested in getting rid of them on the cheap. If this can be combined with developing new export markets for the domestic defense industry, politicians may be even more inclined to ignore any moral qualms.
This, of course, is terribly short-sighted. It will strengthen criminal smuggling operations, many of which have links to terrorist organizations, because many refugees will just attempt to again reach Europe. And providing regimes like Uganda and Rwanda with even more weaponry and tools to suppress their domestic populations and intervene in neighboring countries will only serve to ultimately increase the refugee population.