By Brian Goldstone
The photograph showed four young Eritrean men in the departure terminal at Ben Gurion International Airport. Dressed sharply in jeans and T-shirts, they looked playful and relaxed, hugging each other shoulder to shoulder. They were waiting to board a flight bound for Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Having spent the last several months confined to an Israeli detention center, their relief at what had been promised to them in the East African nation—housing and employment and, above all, a path to refugee status—was evident on their faces.
When Saimon Fisaha pointed to his younger, smiling visage in the photograph three and a half years later, he had long since relinquished the optimism of that morning. It was mid-February, and we were sitting in a hotel restaurant off Alexanderplatz, in central Berlin, as the gentle-mannered 27-year-old explained that he and his friends were among the first to be expelled from Israel under a secret program to rid the country of its African asylum-seekers. Some of the story I knew already: Two weeks earlier, his testimony had appeared in a widely publicized study based on interviews with him and 18 other Eritrean deportees. The starkly titled report, “Better a Prison in Israel Than Dying on the Way,” which was co-authored by three Israeli migration researchers, documented a collection of harrowing yet remarkably similar journeys. All of the refugees had been “voluntarily” relocated from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda between 2014 and 2016; all, somewhat miraculously, had survived the tribulations that followed and were able to make their way to Europe, where the majority were subsequently granted asylum. Though Israeli authorities denied wrongdoing, other investigations have revealed that as many as 4,000 Eritreans and Sudanese were deported into the same perilous conditions.
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