By Ivan Nganwa
KIGALI, Rwanda (AA) - The Rwandan government on Tuesday denied the existence of a secret deal to receive African asylum-seekers forcibly deported from Israel.
The denial comes in the wake of protests by over 1,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees and asylum-seekers at the Rwandan Embassy in Tel Aviv on Monday, calling on Rwanda to back out of any controversial deal to deport them without their consent.
"In reference to the rumors that have been recently spread in the media, the government of Rwanda wishes to inform that it has never signed any secret deal with Israel regarding the relocation of African migrants," Rwanda Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said in a statement.
"Rwanda's position on migrants, wherever they may originate from, was informed and shaped by a sentiment of compassion towards African brothers and sisters who are today perishing in high seas, sold on the markets like cattle, or expelled from countries in which they sought shelter."
The statement looks to end speculation over whether Rwanda had agreed to a deal, after Mushikiwabo said in late November that negotiations had indeed been ongoing with Israel.
Last August, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to deport African "infiltrators," a pledge seen as rallying call to his far-right supporters ahead of 2019 elections.
But his government came under immense international pressure to halt discriminatory and "racist" treatment of African asylum-seekers.
To make matters worse for Netanyahu, a group of Israel Air pilots declared on Monday that they would not fly African asylum-seekers to Rwanda if they were being forcibly deported from Israel.
Although the airline does not fly to Rwanda, the pilots declared on Facebook that they would not be part of the "barbaric" act if called upon.
With both Rwanda and Uganda insisting that they will not welcome asylum-seekers deported from Israel, the UN refugee agency UNHCR insists that Israel should now properly review their status and consider them for asylum within Israel.
There are close to 40,000 asylum-seekers held in the Holot Detention Centre in Israel, most of them Eritrean, along with some Sudanese.