Bowing to pressure, Netanyahu axes landmark United Nations migrant deal

Casey Dawson
April 4, 2018

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday he was canceling an agreement with the United Nations refugee agency to relocate thousands of African migrants to Western countries. "Therefore, I chose to meet, together with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, with representatives of the residents of southern Tel Aviv tomorrow [Wednesday] morning".

Tens of thousands of Africans have settled in south Tel Aviv, angering longtime residents of the working-class area.

Mr Netanyahu later said at a news conference that Israel would offer temporary residency status to the same number of asylum-seekers as were resettled in Western nations. The remaining migrants would have been allowed to stay for up to five years.

The interior ministry says there are now some 42,000 African migrants in Israel, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, and the government has ordered that thousands of them must leave or face indefinite imprisonment. Majority entered the country illegally via the land border with Egypt before a border fence was completed in 2012.

Uganda's foreign affairs minister, Henry Okello Oryem, says that if any migrants deported from Israel arrive in the East African nation "we will insist that the airlines return them to the country where they came from". The deportation plan had been widely criticized at home and overseas, even by some of Israel's closest supporters.

Netanyahu said the plan was scrapped after it became clear that the "third country", which he did not identify, could not handle the influx.

The planned mass deportation led to legal challenges in Israel, drew criticism from the United Nations and rights groups and triggered an emotional public debate among Israelis.

A Palestinian man was shot dead by Israeli troops on the Gaza border on Tuesday, the health ministry in the strip said.

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In a joint statement, Israeli human rights groups condemned the decision to cancel the agreement, accusing Netanyahu of playing "political games".

The UN on Tuesday urged Mr Netanyahu to "reconsider" his decision. The Supreme Court had frozen the deportations in mid-March after a petition filed by opponents, and had been waiting for the government to respond to the petition.

In January, the Prime Minister had ordered thousands of African refugees to leave the country by April or face imprisonment.

"I have listened carefully to the many comments on the agreement".

More than 39,000 asylum seekers, mainly from Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, now live in Israel.

Originally, the government hoped to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the Israeli far-right party Jewish Home, a key member of Netanyahu's coalition government and a competitor for Israel's right-wing votes, said on Twitter the agreement would encourage more people to enter the country illegally and called on Netanyahu to overturn it. He called for the plan to be brought to the Cabinet for a vote.

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