Israel announced a deal with the United Nations refugee agency on Monday to resettle Sudanese and Eritrean migrants in Western nations – suspending a controversial deportation plan – but hours later put the agreement on hold.
International news media reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had announced the deal on national TV, saying Israel agreed to cancel the planned expulsion of tens of thousands of African migrants. He said the deal with the UNHCR called for sending about half of the nearly 35,000 migrants to Western nations and allowing the rest to remain in Israel.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu said that he has suspended the deal. “I have listened carefully to the many comments on the agreement. As a result, and after I again weighed the advantages and disadvantages, I decided to cancel the deal,” a statement from the prime minister’s office quoted Netanyahu as saying.
There are approximately 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry. About 72 per cent are Eritrean and 20 per cent are Sudanese, and the vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012. Under the now stalled UN deal, 16,000 of the 34,200 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants living in Israel would be resettled in the West over a period of five years. The rest would stay in Israel.
Israel announced plans to expel illegal migrants to an unidentified African country – believed to be Rwanda or Uganda – starting April 1. In recent months, the deportation plan had been widely criticised by Israelis and people abroad. Watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Foreign Policy reported extensively about the developments in the harsh asylum policy by Israel.
Many Israelis argued that their country, founded in the wake of the Holocaust, should not implement a deportation plan for conflict refugees, and together with African migrants they staged demonstrations against the plan in January and February.
The UNHCR arrangement also addressed needs of the host community in Tel Aviv by encouraging Eritreans and Sudanese to move out of neighbourhoods where many of them have congregated. Reports state that the prime minister discussed the new UN arrangement with Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv areas that host large migrant populations late Monday before announcing the suspension.
In a reaction released today, UNHCR said that it regrets the cancellation. “UNHCR continues to believe that a win-win agreement that would both benefit Israel and people needing asylum is in everyone’s best interests. And we encourage the Government of Israel to consider the matter further, while standing ready to be of help.”
‘Israel forces asylum seekers from Sudan, Eritrea to leave’: HRW (September 10, 2014)