Muhtar Awdalla had two choices: indefinite detention in southern Israel, or a return to his native Sudan, where he feared for his safety.
So when Israeli officials offered him a third option – a one-way flight to Uganda and $3,500 cash – he begrudgingly agreed to leave.
Awdalla was given a travel document and boarded a plane in Tel Aviv. Exhausted by what he had already been through, he fell asleep.
But when he woke up, he was in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.
“I thought it was a dream, but it was a reality,” Awdalla told Al Jazeera.
His account of a “voluntary” departure from Israel gone wrong comes amid a growing protest movement against an Israeli government plan to forcibly expel tens of thousands of African asylum seekers.
On Wednesday, thousands of aslyum seekers protested in front of the Rwandan embassy in Tel Aviv, chanting, “Deportation kills” and “We are not criminals, we are refugees”, AP news agency reported.
Rallies were also expected in London, New York, Paris, Berlin, Toronto and more than a dozen other cities to protest Israel’s effort to deport asylum seekers to third countries in Africa, namely Rwanda and Uganda.
If they do not agree to leave, the asylum seekers may be imprisoned indefinitely in Israel.
The protests are being held outside the Rwandan embassies in each respective city throughout the day.
“Protesters will demand that Rwandan President and African Union chairman Paul Kagame refuse to participate in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan,” organisers said in a statement.
Originally from the Sudanese region of Darfur, Awdalla, now 29, had been living in Israel for nearly five years when he took his deportation flight in 2014.
He said he believes the Israelis lied to him about where the plane was going and never intended to send him to Uganda in the first place. “They didn’t tell the truth,” he claimed.
Once in Sudan, he said he feared he would be jailed and tortured – or worse. “I knew that I was in Sudan so I was thinking, how am I going to survive?”
Travelling to Israel is expressly forbidden for Sudanese nationals. Sudan does not recognise Israel and does not maintain diplomatic ties to Tel Aviv.
If a Sudanese citizen comes back after being in Israel, he or she will be interrogated by the Sudanese authorities. If records of their stay in Israel exist, then they may be held in temporary detention until they are proven not to be “anti-state” agents.
Though exact numbers do not exist, Awdalla is believed to be among about 4,000 African asylum seekers who, faced with the prospect of imprisonment, have signed deals with the Israeli government since 2013 to be deported to third countries in Africa, according to the United Nations.
Those third countries are widely thought to be Rwanda and Uganda, Israeli media have reported.
About 27,000 Eritrean and 7,700 Sudanese asylum seekers currently live in Israel, figures from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) show.
This week, the Israeli government issued deportation notices to 20,000 male asylum seekers, Reuters news agency reported, giving them 60 days to leave the country or face indefinite detention.
The asylum seekers will be able to go to Rwanda or back to their home countries, Haaretz newspaper said.
In testimony collected by an Israeli human rights group, an Eritrean asylum seeker named Dawit said Israeli officials pressured him to sign a so-called voluntary repatriation document that stated, “I want to go to Rwanda”.
“I said I did not want to write that, I am leaving only because I cannot stay. They told me: ‘You have to,'” he said.
For his part, Awdalla had lived in Libya and Egypt before crossing into Israel through the Sinai desert in 2009. He was jailed when he first arrived, but let out after eight months on a “conditional release” visa.
Israel does not verify individual refugee claims. Instead, it grants asylum seekers temporary protection, which allows them to remain in the country, but does not give them access to healthcare and other social services, as well as the legal right to work.
Israeli government officials have in the last years described African asylum seekers as “infiltrators”, “a cancer”, and as a threat to the state’s Jewish majority.
Since 2009, Israel has only recognised 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese national as refugees, according to UNHCR.
The agency recently said it had identified 80 cases of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers who were “relocated from Israel” and later “risked their lives by taking dangerous onward journeys to Europe via Libya”.
African migrants have been abused and sold as slaves in Libya, which serves as a main transit point on many routes to Europe.
Some of the asylum seekers who had been deported from Israel said “that people travelling with them had died en route to Libya, where many experienced extortion and detention, as well as being subjected to abuse – including torture – and violence”, said William Spindler, UNHCR spokesperson.
“UNHCR is again appealing to Israel to halt its policy of relocating Eritreans and Sudanese to sub-Saharan Africa,” Spindler said in a statement.
Despite this, Israel announced late last year that it intends to give the remaining asylum seekers two options: indefinite detention in an Israeli prison, or deportation to a third country, even without their consent.
To that end, the Israeli cabinet recently approved a proposal to close the Holot detention facility by March. Holot was built specifically to hold African asylum seekers in southern Israel.
“This removal is enabled thanks to an international agreement I achieved, which allows us to remove the 40,000 remaining infiltrators without their consent,” Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has said.
After the plan was made public, Rwanda’s foreign minister told a local newspaper the country was in negotiations with Israel to take in as many as 10,000 asylum seekers.
But both Rwanda and Uganda subsequently denied reports they had formal agreements with Israel to take in any asylum seekers.
“Let me be clear: Rwanda will NEVER receive any African migrant who is deported against his/her will,” Olivier Nduhungirehe, the country’s minister of state in the ministry of foreign affairs, wrote on Twitter on January 24.
Let me be clear: Rwanda will NEVER receive any African migrant who is deported against his/her will. Our « open doors » policy only applies to those who come to Rwanda voluntary, without any form of constraint.
Any manipulation of women, men & children in distress is appalling. https://t.co/W1chMCq96y
— Amb. Olivier J.P. Nduhungirehe (@onduhungirehe) January 24, 2018
Okello Oryem, Uganda’s foreign minister, also denied the existence of any “written agreement or any form of agreement between the government of Uganda and the Israeli government to accept refugees from Israel”.
However, Sigal Rozen, of the Tel Aviv-based Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, told Al Jazeera that the Israeli government has made “all sorts of obscure deals” to get rid of asylum seekers.
“We don’t know the details … we don’t know the safeguards of the deals,” she said, however, explaining that the secrecy with which Israel carries out its policy makes the deportations dangerous.
“In these cases, a mistake might cost the life of a person. These are not little errors.”
For years, Israel also sought to pass “decrees and laws whose main purpose is to make their life miserable until they leave”, added Rozen.
When the government realised people would not go back to their home countries voluntarily, it sought to find third countries that would be willing to take them in “for the right amount of money and who knows what else”, she said.
She said the third countries are not truly absorbing the asylum seekers, but bringing them in “without providing them [with] any legal status”.
In testimonies collected over the past four years, asylum seekers described being sent from Israel to Rwanda, where they said they were handed over to people-smugglers who told them “they cannot stay in Rwanda and they must go to Uganda”, Rozen said.
An asylum seeker who agreed to leave Israel for Rwanda in 2015 recently told Israeli researchers he was coerced to leave for Uganda in this way.
“Three days after our arrival, this man picked us up from the airport told us, ‘You must leave for Uganda’. I asked where are our documents and why must we leave? – He said that we must,” the asylum seeker said, according to the report.
“It is as if Israel thinks that the fact that the Eritrean and Sudanese [refugees] share a similar skin colour with the Rwandan and Ugandan people, [and that] is a good enough reason to send them there,” Rozen said.
In the past year, Netanyahu has made a noticeable push to strengthen Israel’s ties to African countries in a bid, as he has publicly admitted, to shift the balance of votes at the UN in Israel’s favour.
Relations have been particularly warm between Netanyahu and Rwandan President Paul Kagame. The two leaders have met several times in the past few years.
In June 2016, Netanyahu arrived in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, to become the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit sub-Saharan Africa in three decades. Kagame, meanwhile, was the first African head of state to speak at the annual AIPAC Zionist lobby conference in the US last March.
“My message today is simple: Rwanda is, without question, a friend of Israel,” Kagame said in his address.
In November, Netanyahu also announced plans to open an Israeli embassy in Kigali, in a move that fuelled rumours that Rwanda plans to take in Israel’s asylum seekers.
‘I was very lucky’
For Awdalla, the return to Sudan turned into a long ordeal. After landing in the country, he said he was detained by the Sudanese authorities.
He spent three months in jail, where he said he shared a cramped cell with dozens of other prisoners. The space was too small for every person to sit down at the same time, Awdalla said, and the prison guards sprayed them with hot and cold water and beat them with sticks.
“I know some others who got [sent] back from Israel, some of them were tortured much worse than me. I was very lucky,” he said.
After being released from detention, he briefly rejoined his family in a refugee camp in eastern Chad before moving to Uganda, where he is now pursuing a law degree at a local university.
“I don’t think Israel will ever stop sending African refugees to Rwanda and Uganda,” he said, describing Israel’s policy as “the worst” and a violation of international law.
Despite being able to study and rebuild his life, he said life in Uganda is “very, very difficult”.
“Deportees from Israel in Uganda and from Israel [in] Rwanda, these people are suffering,” he said, urging asylum seekers who are still in Israel not to give up.
With contribution from Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan in Sudan