Israel cancels deportation of 35,000 African asylum seekers

Half of the refugees can stay in Israel with the rest moving to ‘developed countries’

Israeli prime minister Binjamin Netanyahu. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli prime minister Binjamin Netanyahu. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

 

In a dramatic last-minute U-turn, Israel has cancelled the deportation of some 35,000 African asylum seekers that was due to begin in the coming days.

After secret contacts with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced in a news conference on Monday that half the asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, will be sent to Western countries and the rest will be granted refugee status and allowed to remain and work in Israel.

“This agreement will allow for the departure from Israel of 16,250 migrants to developed countries, such as Canada, Germany and Italy, ” he said.

The plan will be implemented in three stages over five years, and includes a forced relocation from south Tel Aviv, where the vast majority of the Africans currently reside, to other parts of the country, for those remaining in Israel.

The government plan for a mass deportation to Rwanda was challenged in the courts and criticised by human rights groups.

Large demonstrations to stop the deportations took place in recent months, although the move was supported by a majority of Israelis.

Critics, including holocaust survivors, argued that a country made up of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution shouldn’t be deporting asylum seekers to countries where their lives may be in danger.

Volunteered to open homes

Thousands of Israelis had volunteered to open their homes to Africans faced with deportation.

Mr Netanyahu explained that the planned expulsion had to be aborted because Rwanda did not meet the conditions to absorb the asylum seekers, as was initially intended, and collapsed under the international pressure exerted on it.

“From the moment that it became clear in the last few weeks that the third country as an option does not exist, we in effect entered a trap that meant all of them would stay,” he explained.

He said the new outline allows the removal of many more than the deportation plan and has the added advantage of the backing of the UN and the international community.

Opposition Zionist Union Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich said the agreement was “a tremendous victory for a citizens’ campaign and the voice of morality and reason against racism and hatred of the stranger”.

There was criticism from within the government coalition. Education minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, said the deal will turn Israel into a heaven for economic migrants. “The agreement represents complete capitulation to the campaign of lies that has been promoted in the media in recent months.”

Shlomo Maslawi, a Tel Aviv city councillor who led the protests against the high concentration of Africans in south Tel Aviv, said the new agreement was a “disaster that will reverberate for generations to come”.