KAMPALA - In a turnaround, Uganda's government announced Friday it may take in 500 African asylum seekers from Israel. Israel wants to relocate thousands of Africans, mostly Eritrean and Sudanese, that it says entered Israel illegally.
Uganda's state minister for relief, disaster preparedness and refugees, Musa Ecweru, acknowledged the request from Israel during a news conference Friday.
"The state of Israel, working with other refugee-managing organizations, has requested Uganda to allow about 500 refugees of Eritrean and Sudanese descent to be relocated to Uganda,' Ecweru said. 'The government and ministry are positively considering the request."
The U.N. Refugee Agency says some 4,000 African asylum seekers have voluntarily left Israel for Uganda and Rwanda since 2013, reports both countries have continuously denied.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Ecweru denied the existence of any so-called secret deals between Uganda and Israel on the matter. He said applicants for the 500 slots currently being discussed would be rigorously vetted.
"We are processing. The eligibility committee is standing by just to receive the first batch, and we'll process them through the assessment and those who will meet our criteria will certainly be granted asylum immediately," said Ecweru.
He did not offer further details, though he did seem to indicate the relocations to Uganda would be voluntary.
Israel is home to about 40,000 African asylum seekers. Most are from Eritrea and Sudan and say they cannot return home for fear of conflict or oppression. Many arrived in Israel between 2006 and 2012. Israel's government rejects claims the Africans are refugees, describing them as economic migrants and "infiltrators."
In January, Israel issued an ultimatum to the single men in the group - accept a cash payment and a plane ticket to a third country in Africa or face detention and deportation. The Israeli government's plan to begin forced deportations in April has been put on a hold by Israel's supreme court.
For Uganda, welcoming asylum seekers from Israel could prove to be a touchy subject. The country is already straining to host more than 1.4 million refugees, most of whom have fled conflicts in neighboring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo in just the past two years.