Israeli U-turn on migrants deal prolongs African agony

The scrapping of the UN deal means the African migrants must wait for Israel’s next decree to know their fate.
Sunday 08/04/2018
Illegal African immigrants sit in the street in the southern district of Tel Aviv, on April 5. (AFP)
Uncertain future. Illegal African immigrants sit in the street in the southern district of Tel Aviv, on April 5. (AFP)

LONDON - Israel’s decision to cancel a deal with the United Nations to resettle thousands of African migrants and refugees in Western countries has thrown the fate of the country’s unwelcome visitors into jeopardy.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced April 2 that Israel agreed to an arrangement with the United Nations that would result in approximately 16,000 migrants being resettled in Western countries, with the same number granted temporary right to stay in Israel.

Within hours of the announcement, however, Netanyahu said he would shelf the deal. He cancelled it altogether the next day.

Netanyahu’s stunning reversal was the latest twist in an approach to immigration policy that has careened from detentions to deportations as Israel struggles to deal with its migrant and refugee community.

The scrapping of the UN deal, which had been put forward to stop the deportation of thousands of migrants, means the African migrants must wait for Israel’s next decree to know their fate.

Netanyahu, who initially described the deal as “a good agreement” that “enables us to solve this problem,” was thought to have backtracked after hard-line members of his coalition campaigned against keeping African migrants in the country.

“After I weighed the pros and cons, I decided to cancel the agreement,” Netanyahu said. “We will continue to work determinedly to exhaust all the options at our disposal to remove the infiltrators.”

The Africans, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, began arriving in Israel in 2005 through its porous border with Egypt after Egyptian forces violently quashed a refugee demonstration and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel. Tens of thousands crossed the desert border, often after enduring dangerous journeys, before Israel completed a barrier in 2012 that stopped the influx.

Since then, Israel has wrestled over how to cope with those in the country. Many took menial jobs in hotels and restaurants and thousands settled in southern Tel Aviv, where Israeli residents complained of rising crime.

The presence of the primarily African migrants in Israel has become a key political issue.

Hawkish Israeli politicians labelled them infiltrators, with one calling them “a cancer” threatening the country’s Jewish character. Israel went from detaining them in remote desert prisons to purportedly reaching a deal with a third country, believed to be Rwanda, to have them deported. Each of these policies came with legal challenges, however, and the UN deal offered a needed solution to the divisive issue.

Critics at home and in the Jewish-American community said the Israeli government’s plan to deport the migrants to a third country was unethical and would stain Israel’s image as a refuge for Jewish migrants. Groups of Israeli doctors, academics, Holocaust survivors, rabbis, poets and pilots appealed to halt the plan.

Israel considers the majority of the migrants to be jobseekers and says it has no legal obligation to keep them. Many of the Africans say they are asylum-seekers who fled for their lives and face renewed danger if they return.

Dror Sadot, spokeswoman for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants advocacy group, said the fate of the asylum-seekers remains unclear since Netanyahu has yet to come up with an alternative policy.

“Of course we will continue our struggle and consider all our legal options until every last asylum-seeker gets the status they deserve,” she told the Associated Press.

After the cancellation of the deal, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in protest, with some carrying banners reading “Stop the expulsion.”

Eritrean Muluebrhan Ghebrihiwet, 27, one of the demonstrators who has been in Israel for almost seven years and who was released from detention in March, said Israel’s government was playing mind games with the migrants.

“We are grateful to the Israeli public for their support but the government has waged a psychological war against us and they have done so because of politics but we are refugees, human beings and we demand that they stop,” he told Reuters.

Following the collapse of the deal, Israel released from detention 58 African migrants who had been awaiting deportation in Saharonim in the south of the country. They boarded buses to Tel Aviv. They were freed because the state could not give assurances to the Supreme Court that it had found a safe haven for them abroad.

“I have been detained for six months and at lunch time today the police came and told me I was being released. I don’t know where I’ll go yet,” Musia Bara from Eritrea told Israel’s Channel 1.

About 200 additional migrants who are being held at the Saharonim detention centre are expected to be freed.