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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Israel backtracks on forced deportation of African asylum seekers

Deal reached with UN to send half to western countries instead of African nations

The Israeli government had planned to give the asylum seekers a choice between expulsion and indefinite imprisonment. Heidi Levine / Sipa Press
The Israeli government had planned to give the asylum seekers a choice between expulsion and indefinite imprisonment. Heidi Levine / Sipa Press

The Israeli government announced on Monday that it was scrapping controversial plans for a mass expulsion of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda, yielding to legal and public pressure against the move.

Instead, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that an agreement had been reached with the UN refugee agency, the UN High Commission on Refugees, providing for 16,250 of the asylum seekers to be resettled to western countries including Canada, Germany and Italy. According to the agreement, an equal number is to be granted temporary residency status in Israel for five years.

The agreement marks a dramatic climbdown by the government, which had planned to give the asylum seekers, whom it designated as work migrants and "illegal infiltrators", a choice between expulsion and indefinite imprisonment. The asylum seekers, fleeing war in Sudan and indefinite military service in Eritrea, had crossed into Israel through the Sinai Peninsula in the years before a border fence was completed in 2013.

But as part of deliberations on a petition by rights lawyers challenging the legality of the deportations, Israel's Supreme Court last month froze the process pending the provision by state attorneys of more details of the plan. Mr Netanyahu's office said on Monday that "legal imperatives and diplomatic difficulties" had forced the abandonment of the plan, an apparent reference to Rwanda's denial that it had agreed to accept people forcibly deported.

"The Supreme Court would have told us there is no third country and all of them would have stayed" in Israel without the agreement with UNHCR, Mr Netanyahu said at a press conference.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a news conference in Jerusalem on April 2, 2018 at which his government announced it would not go ahead with the forced deportation of thousands of African asylum seekers. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, centre, director general of the Israel's Population and Immigration Authority, and Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri were also present. Ronen Zvulun / Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a news conference in Jerusalem on April 2, 2018 at which his government announced it would not go ahead with the forced deportation of thousands of African asylum seekers. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, centre, director general of the Israel's Population and Immigration Authority, and Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri were also present. Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

The expulsion plan was opposed by groups including Holocaust survivors, doctors and airline pilots, who said they would refuse to fly planes with deportees. Two large demonstrations were held in Tel Aviv on behalf of the refugees. Mainstream American Jewish groups came out against the plan and even leading American Jewish advocate for Israel Alan Dershowitz said it had a "whiff of racism".

Daniel Avram, 26, an Eritrean refugee in Tel Aviv, said: "Today is a holiday. I have to find out the details but this sounds good. I feel relieved".

Sigal Rozen, a staffer at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, termed the agreement "shameful but good for the refugees".

"It is shameful because Israel is sending its refugees to other developed countries instead of absorbing refugees from other areas of disaster."

She attributed the government's reversal to "public pressure, legal pressure, all the pressure in general".

Mr Netanyahu's office said that an effort would be made to settle the remaining asylum seekers in various parts of the country rather than leave them concentrated in south Tel Aviv, where there has been friction with the low-income Israeli inhabitants.

Officials said that money that was to be spent on the expulsions would go towards upgrading conditions in south Tel Aviv.

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