(Updates with discrepancy in number of refugees to be deported)
By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA, April 13 (Reuters) - Uganda is considering a request from Israel to take in 500 migrants from Eritrea and Sudan, a minister said on Friday, the first time the East African nation has acknowledged it is in talks over such a deal.
“The State of Israel working with other refugees’ managing organisations has requested Uganda to allow about 500 Eritreans and Sudanese to relocate to Uganda. The government and ministry are positively considering the request,” Musa Ecweru, Minister of State for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, said in a statement.
About 4,000 migrants have left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda since 2013 under a voluntary programme but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under pressure from his right-wing voter base to expel thousands more.
In January, Israel started handing out notices to male migrants from Eritrea and Sudan giving them three months to take the voluntary deal with a plane ticket and $3,500 or risk being thrown in jail.
The government said from April it would start forced deportations but rights groups challenged the move and Israel’s Supreme Court has issued a temporary injunction to give more time for the petitioners to argue against the plan.
Government representatives told the court earlier this week that an envoy was in an African country finalising a deportation deal after an arrangement with Rwanda to take migrants expelled under the new measures fell through.
Until Friday’s statement, Ugandan officials had denied to Reuters that their government was in talks with Israel to resettle migrants.
Ecweru said “all refugees world over” should be “voluntarily repatriated with strict observance and adherence to international law”, but did not give further details on the possible deal.
Official documents submitted to the Israeli Supreme Court on Tuesday said authorities have identified close to 8,000 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants it would potentially deport under a compulsory expulsion plan. Asked about the discrepancy Ecweru though told Reuters the deal under discussion with Israel covered only 500 refugees.
A spokesman for Netanyahu did not respond to a request for comment. (Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem Writing by George Obulutsa Editing by Maggie Fick and Janet Lawrence)