Hours after announcing a watershed deal with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to relocate African asylum seekers in Israel to Western Europe and Canada, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged, saying he is “suspending implementation of the agreement,” throwing the fate of tens of thousands into uncertainty.
Making his statement directly to the public on Facebook, Netanyahu said he wants to draft a new agreement after consulting with members of his base who objected to the deal today and live in neighborhoods with high concentrations of refugees.
“I am attentive to you, first and foremost, to you the residents of South Tel Aviv and will write a new deal after conferring with Israelis who complained about the program,” Netanyahu said.
“In this situation, I decided to strive for a new agreement that would still allow the continued removal of the infiltrators,” Netanyahu said using the controversial term that the Israeli government commonly uses in legal documents to denote asylum seekers from Africa.
According to a series of posts on social media by far-right politicians earlier in the day, some Israeli supporters of Netanyahu were angry the multi-lateral resettlement program would send asylum seekers to Western nations instead of deporting them to harsh conditions in third-party African nations. The leading right-wing official, Naftali Bennett, alleged that sending refugees to Europe would incentivize other to trek across the Sinai desert and cross Israel’s border, which is reinforced by a wall.
In Netanyahu’s statement released close to midnight local time, he made nod to these concerns by underscoring how he lobbied the Rwandan government for two years to accept asylum seeker from Israel “expelled without their consent.”
“Rwanda agreed to this and began the deportation operation,” Netanyahu said, yet related he was ham-stringed by left-wing Israeli human rights groups who highlighted that the deportation channels often dumped refugees into the hands of smugglers and human trafficking rings.
“In recent weeks, Rwanda was under tremendous pressure from the New Israel Fund and elements within the European Union, Rwanda withdrew from the agreement and refused to absorb infiltrators from Israel who were forcibly removed,” Netanyahu said.
After hearing the change of news Mutasim Ali, a law student in Ramat Gan who is from Darfur told Mondoweiss, “unless it is implemented it’s not a win and if we can call it a win then it’s a win for all.”
Deal with UN marked an end to forced deportations
This morning, Netanyahu’s office released a statement first announcing the deal with the UN to resettle refugees. If the agreement were to have been carried out, it would have marked an end to a bitter battle by tens of thousands of asylum seekers for protected status.
“The State of Israel and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have reached an unprecedented common understanding on the issue of migrants. UNHCR will work to facilitate the departure of these populations to Western countries, and the State of Israel will regulate the status of some of the populations that will remain,” the statement said.
“In light of the fact that the State of Israel and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are joining forces to implement this framework, there is no longer a need to continue the policy of forced departure to third countries during the implementation of the new framework,” the statement continued.
Some 40,000 African asylum seekers live in Israel according to the Israeli NGO the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, of whom 90 percent hail from Eritrea and Uganda. Under the agreement 16,250 asylum seekers will be admitted to “various Western countries” and the remainder will be absorbed into Israel. In conjunction, Israel said it will invest in a rehabilitation plan for south Tel Aviv in neighborhoods where most of the Africans reside.
Last November Israel’s security cabinet voted to close an immigration detention facility in the desert and look for third party countries where they could be deported. The program caught immediate backlash from the United Nations and human rights groups.
Speaking to reporters earlier Monday, Netanyahu named Canada, Italy, and Germany as countries where asylum seekers will relocate. Yet within hours, the German embassy in Tel Aviv denied the agreement to the Israel’s Haaretz, as did Italy’s Foreign Ministry, which told Reuters, “There is no agreement with Italy in the context of the bilateral agreement between Israel and the UNHCR.”
A spokesperson for Canada’s Ministry of Refugees and citizenship confirmed in a statement to CTV that Canada had discussed taking 1,845 asylum seekers who applied for scholarships in Canada and a further 4,000 Eritreans, but stopped short of disclosing all aspects of the deal.
“We have been monitoring this situation closely and as was reported last month we have been in direct contact with the Government of Israel and we reached an arrangement with Israeli authorities to suspend the deportation and detention of individuals who have private sponsorship (PSR) applications for Canada until the processing of their case has been completed,” said spokesperson Hursh Jaswal.
The Israeli ambassador to Canada Nimrod Barkan told to the Globe and Mail that Canada had quietly appealed to Israel to halt the deportations, offering to accept any asylum seeker that already applied for status.
“About two months ago the Canadian government requested that Israel would defer any deportation procedures to those who requested asylum or immigration status to Canada,” Barkan revealed adding, “We have replied positively to this request and as far as those who requested asylum or immigration status in Canada, they will be protected until the Canadian procedures are to be finished.”
Asylum seekers in Israel celebrate
Despite the confusion over what countries will resettle African asylum seekers, it was a jubilant day for refugees seeking safe haven, marking the end to a long haul of years of demonstrations.
Yet Ali, the refugee from Darfur, was reserved. “I say this, no matter which countries agree on taking asylum seekers what is important is that is no deportation to Rwanda and Uganda under a secret agreement.”
“This decision, if it’s brought into action, means safety and protection for almost all the asylum seekers. But most importantly, deportation is canceled, period. No more fear from deportation,” he said skeptically adding, “Today people are excited to hear the news but, their happiness will not be complete until this plan is implemented.”
Ali is one of just a handful in Israel whose asylum request was processed and received refugee status. Most have languished for years in a bureaucratic limbo where Israel de facto froze all applications for asylum. This left tens of thousands who fled violence in Sudan and a military dictatorship in Eritrea, in the precarious situation of Israel neither accepting nor rejecting their petitions for protected status.
Last January the situation worsened. Israel said it would embark on a mass deportation plan moving all remaining asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda, giving each $3,500 as they left. Israeli news outlets later discovered Rwanda would be paid $5,000 per person it let into its borders.
Both Rwanda and Uganda denied that they had made a secret deal with Israel over the last few months, even after Israeli’s Population and Immigration Authority began issuing deportation notices.