Israeli authorities have not yet reached a deal with Uganda for the deportation of African migrants from Israel, the state told the High Court of Justice on Monday.
State representatives told the court that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s special emissary to Uganda returned to Israel Sunday night after 11 days of talks, but no agreement had been reached.
On Sunday evening, diplomatic sources indicated that the return of the special envoy — whose identity has not been revealed because of his previous senior role in the Shin Bet security service — indicates that significant obstacles still remain to achieving an agreement.
On Sunday, more than 200 African migrants who have refused deportation were ordered released from Saharonim Prison in southern Israel by the High Court, after the government was unable to provide a signed deal with an African country to which they could be deported.
Until Friday, Uganda consistently denied that a deportation agreement with Israel exists, despite reports that it was accepting migrants deported from Israel.
A senior Ugandan minister acknowledged for the first time on Friday that his country was “positively considering” a request by Israel to accept 500 African asylum seekers. In a statement released ahead of a press conference in Kampala, State Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees Musa Ecweru confirmed his country was in talks with Jerusalem to accept several hundred refugees deported from Israel.
Earlier this month, 58 migrants were freed from Saharonim after a similar reported deal with Rwanda fell through. Rwanda, another third-party country that had reportedly agreed to accept asylum seekers from Israel, has also denied the existence of any deal and said it will not absorb any migrants expelled from Israel.
The asylum seekers can only be imprisoned if they refuse a lawful demand by the state to leave to a country willing to receive them. They are freed whenever the state loses the ability to argue before the court that there is such a country.
The presence of the primarily Sudanese and Eritrean migrants in Israel has become a divisive political issue. Israel’s earlier deportation policy to the African countries, which offered each migrant $3,500 and a plane ticket, had been condemned by Israeli activists and the United Nations as chaotic, poorly executed, and unsafe.
Also Monday, Israel Radio reported that Israel was currently in talks with several other nations asking them to take in some of the asylum seekers. These include Zambia, the unconfirmed report said.
Earlier this month week, Netanyahu announced he was canceling a new agreement with the UN’s refugee agency that would have seen thousands of African migrants resettled in Western nations and thousands more given temporary status in Israel. The prime minister froze the deal mere hours after announcing it, following an outcry from right-wing politicians and advocacy groups.
Under the agreement, a minimum of 16,250 migrants would have been resettled in Western nations. In return, Israel would have granted temporary residency to a similar number of migrants.