Netanyahu backtracks on African migrant agreement

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday evening he was putting on hold an agreement with the UN refugee agency to relocate thousands of African migrants to Western countries.

Yesterday afternoon Netanyahu announced that Israel had reached an “unprecedented common understanding” with the UN High commission for refugees (UNHCR) for the departure of over 16,000 African migrants from Israel to Western countries, with a similar number to be given temporary residence to remain in Israel. He also vowed to prioritise rehabilitating the neighbourhoods of south Tel Aviv.

According to the UNHCR, the agreement entailed “a series of objectives and a timetable to implement solutions for some 39,000 people over five years. Under the agreement, UNHCR, with the support of receiving counties, will work to facilitate the departure to third countries to be determined of some 16,000 Eritreans and Sudanese under various programmes, including sponsorship, resettlement, family reunion and labour migration schemes, while others will be receiving a suitable legal status in Israel”.

The Israeli-UNHCR agreement was due to replace a previous policy that asylum seekers would be given $3,500 and sent to Rwanda or Uganda. But this policy came under criticism and the Supreme Court froze the deportations in mid-March in response to a petition.

Netanyahu said that “legal constraints as well as political difficulties on the part of [Uganda and Rwanda]” led to the cancellation of previous deportation policies.

Hours after announcing the deal, which was opposed by coalition ministers and activists from southern Tel Aviv where many migrants are located, Netanyahu posted a message on his Facebook page saying he was putting it on hold until further review.

Opposition figures levelled sharp criticism at what they called Netanyahu’s capitulation. Zionist Union Chairman Avi Gabbay said that this was a sad, embarrassing and mainly a troubling evening, and added that there was no reason to presume that the Prime Minister’s decision-making process on security affairs was any better.

According to a report by the Population and Immigration Authority concluding 2017, there are 34,187 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea in Israel.

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