In deal inked with Canada, Israel agrees to hold off on deporting 2,000 migrants

African asylum seekers who have already been accepted for resettlement in Canada won’t be at risk of imprisonment when deportations begin in April, even if resettlement takes years

African migrants march from Holot detention center to the Saharonim Prison, on February 22, 2018. (AFP  / MENAHEM KAHANA)
African migrants march from Holot detention center to the Saharonim Prison, on February 22, 2018. (AFP / MENAHEM KAHANA)

Israel has reportedly agreed to hold off on deporting 1,845 African asylum seekers who are currently waiting for resettlement in Canada.

Canadian immigration officials said Jerusalem inked a last-minute deal with Ottawa in which the migrants will not be jailed or deported along with tens of thousands of others, according to a Saturday report in the Toronto Star.

Israel recently launched a campaign to deport unmarried male asylum seekers to countries widely reported to be Rwanda and Uganda, or with jail time facing those who refuse to go. Approximately half of the 38,000 asylum seekers could be deported under the plan. Women, married men, and children will not be deported under “the first stage” of the deportations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said.

According to the report, 1,845 of the asylum seekers have already been accepted for resettlement in Canada, but are still waiting for sponsors and final approval from Canadian authorities. This represents approximately 10 percent of the total number of asylum seekers who could be deported under the first stage of the deportation plan.

While their applications are in process, they will be allowed to remain in Israel. The resettlement process can take years to finalize.

Canada has expressed its disapproval of Israel’s plans to kick out roughly 38,000 African migrants, whom Israeli officials often characterize as “infiltrators.”

“Canada does not support policies of mass deportations of asylum-seekers. The rights of asylum-seekers and refugees are laid out in the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, of which Israel is a signatory,” a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told the Star.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 24, 2018. (GPOl)

“As the country that resettles the highest number of African asylum-seekers from Israel, we are in direct contact with the Government of Israel to convey Canada’s concerns about the situation,” he added.

Israel has maintained that most asylum seekers do not actually face persecution at home and have traveled to Israel seeking jobs and a higher standard of living.

A spokesman from Israel’s Embassy in Ottawa told the Canadian news site that the demographics of the asylum seekers “are consistent with a population that is composed mostly of economic migrants.”

Since 2013, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, working with a number of different countries, has resettled 2,400 asylum seekers in third countries which they consider safe, including the US and Canada. The UNHCR is in talks with a number of different countries to resettle a portion of Israel’s asylum seeker population in exchange for allowing the remainder to receive protected status in Israel.

The Africans, nearly all from dictatorial Eritrea and war-torn Sudan, say they fled for their lives and face renewed danger if they return. The vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012.

Th expulsion policy, which offers each migrant $3,500 and a plane ticket, has been condemned by the United Nations as chaotic, poorly executed, and unsafe. Asylum seekers previously deported to Uganda and Rwanda have told the Times of Israel they faced serious danger and even imprisonment after arriving in Africa without proper documents.

In recent weeks, groups of Israeli pilots, doctors, writers, former ambassadors, American Jewish leaders and Holocaust survivors have appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the deportation plan, warning it was unethical and would cause grave damage to Israel’s self-described image as a light unto the nations.

A recent poll by the respected Israel Democracy Institute found two-thirds of the Jewish public supported the planned expulsions. The migrants’ best hope may be the government’s lack of preparation. Prison authorities are skeptical they will be able to process the 15,000 to 20,000 expected to be jailed. There are approximately 500 beds available in the Saharonim prison, the only prison that can accept asylum seekers who refuse deportation.

On Saturday evening, over 20,000 African asylum seekers and Israelis demonstrated next to the Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv, in protest of the government’s deportation plan.

 Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.

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