Israel wants to deport 40,000 Africans to third countries. Many who left previously were denied support and risked death fleeing to Europe
TEL AVIV - The group of 30 asylum seekers are crammed into the back of several Toyota utility vehicles, as they speed across the Sahara.
The passengers have paid smugglers thousands of dollars to get out of Sudan and into Europe, but their journey has been treacherous - and for some already deadly.
With no water to get them through the the scorching, stifling heat, many die, as their friends watch in horror. But according to Kiflom, an Eritrean who was among the group, none of the drivers could care.
"Why should we care? God willing you will die too," Kiflom is told by one of the drivers.
They tried to cross to Europe, but a lot died in the Sahara, then in Libya, and then more on the Mediterranean
- Sheshai, Eritrean refugee in Holot prison, Israel
Kiflom was one of the few who survived, and eventually made it to Italy. But his journey began when he left Israel in April 2016 under its so-called "voluntary departure" programme, which moves unwanted African migrants to a third country with promises of financial support and official refugee status at their destination.
But many of the thousands of mainly Sudanese and Eritreans who left between 2014 and 2016 found their new hosts to be less than welcoming, the promised support failing to materialise, and escape to Europe their only chance of a better life. For many, it was also their death sentence.
Horror stories such as these, contained in a report by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Better a prison in Israel than dying on the way, are being used as a warning for 40,000 African migrants and asylum seekers still in Israel.
Under a draconian acceleration of the old 'voluntary' scheme in January they were given two options: mandatory deportation within 60 days, or indefinite detention in Israel.
Sheshai, also an Eritrean, considers this options from a cell in the Holot detention centre, southern Israel. He has lived in the country for eight years, but was sent to Holot five months ago. He now has less than a month to decide his future.
"A lot of friends left Israel," he told Middle East Eye. "They tried to cross to Europe, but a lot of people died in the Sahara, then a lot of people died in Libya, and then more on the Mediterranean.
"We prefer to stay in prison," he says, although he paints a grim picture of what that means: "We don't have anything, every day we sleep. We [just] have a phone, we use it for internet. We walk around the prison, to de-stress."
A dream turns to a nightmare
Indeed the stories from the other side, from those who have already left, is almost exclusively one of confusion, broken promises, and often death.
Many are marooned without support and find themselves quickly on the move, crossing the borders of one failed state after another - including South Sudan and Libya - before betting everything on a boat to Europe.
Haile and Isayas, who both left under the voluntary scheme, told the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants that the support promised by Israel never materialised.
Both were given $3,500 and tickets to Rwanda, but from there they were on their own.
Isayas told the migrant hotline: "Israel says you can get documents and receive asylum and that you'll have a good life, like a dream."
But on landing in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, Isayas's documents were confiscated and he was led to a "hotel" where he and other migrants were watched by guards to ensure they didn't leave.
All in Isayas group "stayed in the hotel for a few days before being smuggled to Uganda".
Haile's money disappeared fast, and the last of his funds was used to pay smugglers to get him across the Mediterranean. He was one of the lucky ones: surviving the crossing, he found sanctuary in the Netherlands, where he lives now under refugee status.
African migrants stand behind barbed wire at the Holot detention centre (AFP)
No refugee status
The promises of refugee status were also often broken by the third country. Dawit, another voluntary departure, told HRM he was denied access to UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency.
"We said we want to go to the UNHCR, but they tell us 'no, no, no... If you do not move to another country we will return [you] to your country'."
Feeling "scared, pressured and insecure", Dawit crossed from Rwanda to Uganda after paying people-smugglers with money given to him by Israel.
Andie Lambe, the executive director of International Refugee Rights Initiative, has studied the plight of asylum seekers moved from Israel to Uganda under the 'voluntary deportation' programme.
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Lambe said many were taken to a hotel on arrival, "where they could stay for free for two nights", before being left to fend for themselves.
Not one of those she had dealt with were ever granted refugee status - and many told Lambe they were told not to "bother trying" to apply.
"There is a responsibility on the Israeli state to make sure this is happening, if they are going to put that promise in their communications with potential deportees," she said.
Many left high and dry in Uganda found their way to South Sudan, a country itself in the grip of civil war and starvation and where millions of its own civilians had been forced from their homes.
Lambe said the deportees from Israel found themselves there as a direct result of getting nothing from the government of Uganda.
A UN vehicle guards civilians in South Sudan, which has been torn apart by civil war (AFP)
Gabriel, one of those who moved into South Sudan, described how he and others got there.
"All the way with no water, nothing. I don't want to repeat this. It was very hard. We were in the car for almost three days... With goats and sheep, we hid on top," Gabriel tried to explain his journey.
On reaching the border, Gabriel and the other asylum seekers had to each pay $2,000 to cross.
Think about the people who left Israel to have a better life and did not make it
- Isayas, Eritrean refugee
Once in the capital of Juba, the Eritrean asylum seekers felt most at risk from South Sudanese rebels due to connections between the government of South Sudan and Eritrea.
Feeling in constant danger of being deported back to Eritrea, as well as being robbed and imprisoned for months due to not having identification, the asylum seekers moved north to Sudan.
However, many were picked up by Sudan's government, which works with Eritrea to return asylum seekers, many of whom have fled forced, life-long conscription to its army.
Samson was one of those scooped up by Sudanese police. After paying a bribe for his freedom, he found many of his friends had already been sent back to their home country.
"Now where are they? I don't know… [maybe] they will die in Eritrea."
African migrants attempt the crossing to Europe (AFP)
What came next for those who escaped was even worse: Libya.
The journey to Libya haunts the asylum seekers who survived. "At night it comes to us in our head, it repeats… It wakes me up, what I saw… I don't want to remember this… I want to close that door," Kiflom, who survived the desert crossing, told HRM.
Many were placed in overcrowded warehouses for months. In rooms of up to 1,500 people, they were subject to rape, daily violence, slavery, and no food or water.
Like other prisons they had been in, ransoms were required for escape. "Those who did not have money stay longer." Many died.
The asylum seekers could only get on boats to Italy when the smugglers had found at least 500 people wanting go. Overloaded, the motors on the boats broke.
"We went 500 people into the sea, and out of them returned just maybe 100 people… From Israel there were 10 people on the boat, and we got out only three, you understand? Seven people died," Tesfay, a survivor, told HRM.
They know they have no work permits. They hear the stories, they're not ignorant.
- Dror Sadot, Hotline for Refugees and Migrants
Isayas is thankful he survived. He lives now in Italy. But he will never stop thinking of the people who died.
"Think about the people who left Israel to have a better life and did not make it," he said.
Dror Sadot, a spokesman from HRM, told Middle East Eye that such stories would always get back to those awaiting deportation.
"They know what happened to their friends, when they left Rwanda or Uganda, they know many died on the way.
"They know they have no work permits. They hear the stories, they're not ignorant."
Of those left, Dror Sadot said many believe they will not be imprisoned for long by Israel, and it's better to wait it out.
Sheshai has hope the High Court in Israel will reverse the governments plan to deport them. "I hope a lot of people in Israel stand with us, with refugees," he said.