Israel suspends new relocation deal for African migrants

Binyamin Netanyahu withdraws from deal with UNHCR hours after announcing it

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and interior minister Arye Deri:   deal with UN refugee agency cancelled shortly after it was announced. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and interior minister Arye Deri: deal with UN refugee agency cancelled shortly after it was announced. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

 

Facing a right-wing backlash, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has cancelled a deal with the United Nations refugee agency to resettle tens of thousands of African asylum seekers, less than a day after it was announced.

At a meeting with Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv opposed to the presence of large numbers of African asylum seekers, Mr Netanyahu said the deal, which he had earlier suspended, was now being scrapped.

“Every year I make thousands of decisions that benefit the state of Israel and the citizens of Israel,” he said. “From time to time a decision is made that needs to be reconsidered.”

He said that despite “growing legal and international difficulties, we will continue to act with determination to exhaust all the possibilities available to us to remove the infiltrators, and at the same time we will continue to look for additional solutions.”

The fate of the almost 40,000 Africans, who entered Israel via the Egyptian border before the construction of an effective security barrier, is now unclear. South Tel Aviv residents who participated in the meeting said one option being discussed was for the government to offer $10,000 (€8,150) to every migrant who agreed to leave Israel voluntarily.

The government is also reportedly seeking an African country willing to accept the asylum seekers after Rwanda backed down from an earlier agreement to accept the migrants, the majority of whom are from Eritrea and Sudan.

William Spindler, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, urged Mr Netanyahu to think again.

“We continue to believe in the need for a win-win agreement that can benefit Israel, the international community and people needing asylum and we hope that Israel will reconsider its decision soon,” he said.

‘Infiltrators’ paradise’

Under the plan announced on Monday, the UN refugee agency would take responsibility for settling more than 16,000 asylum seekers in other Western countries: the remainder would be allowed to live and work in Israel.

However, within hours of the deal being announced, right-wing coalition partners, members of Mr Netanyahu’s own Likud party, residents of south Tel Aviv and right-wing bloggers all condemned the compromise, accusing the government of capitulating to a left-wing media campaign.

Education minster Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home, the Likud’s main rival for the right-wing vote, said the deal would “turn Israel into an infiltrators’ paradise”.

Monday’s agreement was meant to replace a plan that offered the Africans a choice of jail or forced deportation to Rwanda. Many Israelis had protested against the planned deportation, arguing that a Jewish state had a moral obligation to protect those seeking refuge.

Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog said the only way forward was for Mr Netanyahu to resign.

“The decision to nullify an international agreement that would have made it possible to find a reasonable solution to this issue will complicate things for Israel from a legal, political and humanitarian standpoint,” he said.

Mr Bennett said Israel must now work to expel the “illegal infiltrators”.