Josef Federman, Associated Press, April 2, 2018
Israel on Monday canceled the planned expulsions of tens of thousands of African migrants, saying it reached a deal with the United Nations to resettle half of them in Western nations and allow the rest to remain in the country.
The surprise announcement offered a solution to an issue that has divided Israel for the past decade, and scrapped a plan that had been widely maligned at home and abroad, even by some of Israel’s closest supporters.
Israel is home to roughly 35,000 African migrants, most of them from Eritrea, which has one of the world’s worst human rights records, or war-torn Sudan. The migrants say they are asylum-seekers fleeing danger and persecution, while Israeli leaders have claimed they are merely job seekers.
The Africans started arriving in 2005, after neighboring Egypt violently quashed a refugee demonstration and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel.
Tens of thousands crossed the porous desert border before Israel completed a barrier in 2012 that stopped the influx.
Thousands of the migrants concentrated in poor neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv, an area that has become known as “Little Africa.” Their presence has sparked tensions with working-class Jewish residents, who have complained of rising crime and pressed the government to take action.
Critics at home and in the Jewish American community had called the government’s deportation plans unethical and a stain on Israel’s image as a refuge for Jewish migrants.
Over the years, Israel had threatened migrants with prison, placed them in a now-shuttered desert detention camp and tried to persuade them to leave by offering them money and a one-way ticket to Africa. After those options failed, it announced plans to begin deporting them to an unnamed African country — believed to be Rwanda or Uganda — on April 1.
Meir Ben-Shabbat, Netanyahu’s national security adviser, said the plan would be carried out in three phases over five years. He said the deal would apply only to migrants currently in Israel.
In all, the United Nations will resettle about 16,250 people, while Israel will absorb the same number. “A committee will be formed in order to identify them and find agreed solutions,” Ben-Shabbat said.
Shlomo Mor-Yosef, a senior official at Israel’s Interior Ministry, said migrants would be absorbed throughout the European Union, as well as in Canada and the United States.
As part of the framework, Israel said it would invest in a plan to rehabilitate and develop affected neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, while also resettling African migrants elsewhere in the country.
The U.N. refugee agency said it signed a framework of common understanding “to promote solutions for thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese living in Israel.” The UNHCR said it will work to relocate about 16,000 Sudanese and Eritrean nationals and that others will receive “suitable legal status in Israel.”
Not everyone was pleased. Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party, said the deal turned Israel into a “paradise for infiltrators.” He called for the plan to be brought to the Cabinet for a vote.