Uganda: Doing Israel’s dirty work

Why is Israel sending asylum-seekers to Uganda?

Israel is reluctant to give refugee status to thousands of Africans, writes Fernandez [Getty Images]

While contemplating potential locations for a Jewish homeland over a century ago, Theodor Herzl – the father of modern political Zionism – proposed Uganda as a temporary refuge for persecuted Jews.

Ironically, Uganda is now on the receiving end of other persecuted peoples, this time African refugees who have sought asylum in Israel only to be imprisoned in detention facilities and then returned to the African continent.

As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in a February 2014 article titled “Israel secretly flying asylum seekers to Uganda”, harsh conditions in the detention centres plus nominal financial compensation have facilitated the deportation of many migrants under the guise of “voluntary departure”.

The article quotes the Israeli director of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants on this non-solution to refugee plight: “[I]t is known that Uganda deports asylum seekers to their countries of origin.”

Also quoted is the organisation’s assessment that “‘[v]oluntary departure’ is the result of heavy and illegal psychological pressure on detained, isolated and desperate asylum seekers, which more than once has included threats and lies”. Haaretz furthermore points out that “[t]he position of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees is that people cannot be considered to be acting of their own free will if the choice they have is between detention and being sent back to their country”.

Outsourcing inhumanity

The reason for the disingenuous rendering of a “voluntary” exodus of refugees is, of course, to prevent an already precarious demographic balance in Israel from tipping in favour of non-Jewish non-whites. After all, granting rights to such sectors would only jeopardise the perpetuation of Israel’s ethnocracy-disguised-as-democracy.

Inside Story – The plight of African migrants in Israel

Other Israeli methods of dealing with the apparent surplus of Africans in the country have included political incitement to anti-African violence and the forcible injection of Ethiopian women with contraceptives.

As Israeli-Canadian journalist David Sheen noted, between November 2012 and May 2013 the Jewish state had approved only one asylum application from a population of approximately 60,000 non-Jewish African asylum seekers in Israel. The applicant happened to be an albino.

“When Israel rounds up and deports African refugees, it makes a mockery of the millions of Jews who died during World War II because no one would grant them shelter,” Sheen has remarked.

But what does Uganda stand to gain from participating in outsourced inhumanity? A 2013 Vice magazine report details the perks of the arrangement: Weapons discounts and military training for African countries willing to take on Israel’s dirty work.

To be sure, Israel’s long success in oppressing Palestinians and other Arabs makes its expertise quite marketable among abusive states. Uganda’s interest in Israeli weapons is perhaps less than surprising given the behaviour of its own army and security forces, often characterised by torture and other human rights violations.

Back in 2003, Haaretz ran a story on Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s visit to Israel for the purpose of “arms shopping”, an excursion that was said to have been “arranged by an arms merchant, Amos Golan of the Silver Shadow company, who represents IAI [Israel Aircraft Industries] and other Israeli defence industries in Uganda”. Highlights of the itinerary included an air show of pilotless drones. 

Neoliberal polities committed to the wellbeing of the arms industry over the wellbeing of humans naturally can’t be expected to waste time helping refugees find refuge. Quite auspiciously for said industry, the Israeli regime insists on referring to African asylum seekers as “infiltrators“, which connotes criminality and facilitates the illusion of a steady stream of enemies that must be combated.

Uganda’s denial of the existence of any deportation agreement with Israel renders accountability for human life even less of an option.

Territorial entitlement

The Vice magazine article notes that, as of September of last year, approximately 40,000 of the African “infiltrators” were from Eritrea, “a country with one of the worst human rights records on Earth“.

The author goes on to comment, with well-directed sarcasm, that “[t]hese people aren’t coming to Israel because they fancy upping their matzah intake or living on Palestinian land illegally; they’re genuinely trying to escape persecution and find a way to survive”.

Indeed, Israel enjoys a bit of a monopoly when it comes to the practise of setting up shop on other people’s territory.

The appropriation of Palestine in 1948 – the year of Israel’s spontaneous foundation – incidentally set the stage for a less amicable period in Israeli-Ugandan relations. In 1976, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the German Baader-Meinhof gang hijacked an Air France flight from Tel Aviv and diverted it to Uganda’s Entebbe airport in an attempt to secure the release of prisoners held in Israel and other countries. The Israeli military then staged a bloody hostage rescue mission that was condemned by the UN Secretary General as “a serious violation of the sovereignty of a United Nations member state”.

Now, under the current deportation agreement, Uganda is enlisted in none other than a mission to secure Israel’s own borders, which are under threat from “infiltrators” apparently so indistinguishable from one another in their blackness that they can be repatriated to any old place in Africa.

Ugandan complicity in the dominion of a worldview predicated on apartheid and ethnic cleansing is itself a serious violation – not of borders but of human dignity.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.