by Will Racke
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has canceled a deal with the United Nations to relocate illegal African migrants to the West and allow some to stay in Israel, shortly after the agreement was announced to jeers from his core supporters.
In a post to his official Facebook page late Monday, Netanyahu said he was putting the deal on hold pending further review. Then, after meeting Tuesday with residents of south Tel Aviv, an economically depressed area where many African migrants have settled, he declared the agreement void.
“I have listened carefully to the many comments on the agreement,” Netanyahu said in a statement, according to Reuters. “As a result, and after I again weighed the advantages and disadvantages, I decided to cancel the deal.”
The agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees would have transferred roughly 16,000 illegal African immigrants to Western countries, in return for a guarantee to “formalize the status” of those who remain. The remaining migrants would have been allowed to stay and work in Israel for another five years.
As soon as the deal was announced, many supporters of Netanyahu’s right-wing government protested, accusing the prime minister of caving to liberal demands to allow the migrants to stay. Some ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet also voiced opposition to the agreement, saying they hadn’t been consulted or notified about the impending deal.
Before Israel completed a barrier along its border with Egypt in 2013, about 60,000 African migrants — mostly from Sudan and Eritrea — crossed the desert frontier and settled in the Tel Aviv area. Many of the illegal immigrants say they fled violence and persecution, but Israel treats them as economic migrants.
Roughly 38,000 African migrants are still living without immigration status in Israel, immigration officials say. Israel has granted asylum to fewer than one percent of those who have applied, with the aim of getting most of the migrants to return home.
Israel developed a repatriation plan in 2017 that gave the Africans two options: leave voluntarily or be sent to prison. The plan involved offering the migrants $3,500 payments and free airline tickets to return home or to “third countries” such as Rwanda and Uganda. Any illegal immigrants who did not have pending asylum claims were to be deported beginning in April.
The question of what to do about the African asylum seekers has opened political divisions in Israel, which was founded as a home for Jews fleeing persecution around the world.
Netanyahu has characterized the resettlement of African migrants in Israel as harmful to the country’s social cohesion and Jewish character. Some progressives, on the other hand, say Israel has a moral obligation to take shelter refugees fleeing violence and poverty.
Netanyahu’s government had intended to move forward with deportations until Israel’s Supreme Court ordered a freeze on the operation in March. Under pressure from his nationalist base, Netanyahu says he will seek alternative plans to repatriate the African migrants.
“Despite legal restraints and international difficulties that are piling up, we will continue to act with determination to explore all of the options at our disposal to remove the infiltrators,” Netanyahu said Tuesday, according to Reuters.
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