Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel

Israel's asylum seeker deadlock

Date: 28.4.18 Source: Jerusalem Post, Mark Weiss

The government's plan to deport African asylum seekers has hit a major snag: No African country is willing to accept them.

The agreement with Rwanda collapsed and efforts to negotiate a revised agreement with Uganda have failed, although Kampala did announce a willingness to accept 500 African migrants from Israel.

State Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees Musa Ecweru confirmed that Uganda was positively considering an Israeli request.

“We already have millions of refugees in Uganda from Somalia and Ethiopia, so the few from Israel won’t be a problem to Uganda as a third-party country,” he said.

Ecweru said the move was purely a humanitarian gesture and denied that Israel was paying Uganda.

However, with some 38,000 asylum seekers in Israel, the agreement with Uganda to accept 500 amounts to a drop in the ocean, and the government plan for mass deportations is on hold.

In early April it looked, finally, like a solution had been found. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Arye Deri, at a festive news conference, announced that an agreement had been reached with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

Under the deal, the UN agency would take responsibility for resettling 16,250 asylum seekers in Western countries and the rest would be allowed to stay and work in Israel, with the government committing to relocate most of them to other areas in Israel as part of a wider rehabilitation plan for south Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu named Germany, Italy and Canada as examples of countries that would accept the migrants even though officials in Rome and Berlin said they had no knowledge of any deal.

But in response to a right-wing backlash, Netanyahu suspended the deal seven hours after it was announced and cancelled the agreement the following morning.

The right-wing backlash included members of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, residents of south Tel Aviv and right-wing bloggers, who all condemned the compromise, accusing the government of capitulating to a left-wing media campaign.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of Bayit Yehudi, the Likud’s main rival for the right-wing vote, urged the government to move to expel the “illegal infiltrators.”

“Giving status to 16,000 infiltrators in Israel will turn Israel into a paradise for infiltrators and constitutes complete capitulation to the mendacious campaign in the media in the last few months. The original plan was moral and correct, and we should act only in keeping with it. The Israeli government’s credibility is on the line.”

The morning after announcing the deal with the UN agency the prime minister met with a group of south Tel Aviv residents and explained his U-turn.

“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.”

But additional solutions appear elusive.

Unable to meet a mid-April High Court of Justice deadline to present a written agreement with a third country to take in the asylum seekers, the authorities were forced to release the remaining 209 detainees awaiting deportation from the Saharonim Prison. They had been jailed for refusing to be deported, but without an African state willing to accept them there was no longer a legal justification to keep them in detention. The Stop the Deportation movement welcomed the prisoners’ release but criticized the government, saying, “Today, it has been made clear beyond any doubt that forced deportation is no longer an option. Even Third World countries are unwilling to be part of such an inhumane move.” 

WILLIAM SPINDLER, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, after being informed that Israel had cancelled the deal with his organization, urged Netanyahu to reconsider.

“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,” Spindler said.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said the only way forward was for 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,” Herzog said.

The failure to implement the deportation policy was not the only setback for the government. Addressing a Knesset committee, a government official confirmed that it was impossible to enforce a rule prohibiting asylum seekers from living or working in seven major cities with the largest concentration of Africans – Tel Aviv, Eilat, Petah Tikva, Netanya, Bnei Brak, Ashdod and Jerusalem.

Yossi Edelstein, who heads the Immigration Authority’s enforcement division, said his office has no tools to enforce this rule.

Some 15,000 African asylum seekers will continue to live in south Tel Aviv.

“The government is responsible for this failure and it must provide immediate solutions,” a neighborhood residents’ group said in a statement. “We demand solutions now. Otherwise, the situation on the ground will get worse, and the first to suffer from it will be residents of south Tel Aviv. Prime Minister Netanyahu, it’s time to wake up.”

Following his zigzag, Netanyahu accused the New Israel Fund of pressuring Rwanda to retract its consent to accept asylum seekers from Israel and said that he had instructed the coalition chairman to form a parliamentary commission of inquiry to examine the NIF’s activity.

The NIF stated in response that the prime minister had “crossed every red line” in in- citing against the organization and denied having any contact with the government of Rwanda.

Netanyahu, who once declared that when he wants something he gets it, emerged from the U-turn as a populist leader pandering to his right-wing base. But the real losers are the asylum seekers themselves and the long-suffering residents of south Tel Aviv, who, for a brief seven-hour window, finally saw some hope and an end to years of uncertainty.