More than 200 African migrants in jail in Israel were released Sunday by order of the Supreme Court, after a deal to deport them to another African country remained unsigned.
In total, 207 African migrants and asylum seekers were released over several hours from the Saharonim Prison in southern Israel, where they had been held since refusing to leave Israel voluntarily.
The Supreme Court last week ordered them to be released on Sunday — the day that the government was to present its final plan for sending them to another country. The court also ordered the government’s deportation plan suspended for an additional two weeks, Haaretz reported.
The state informed the High Court of Justice that negotiations with a third country, widely reported to be Uganda, to accept the deported migrants from Israel were still ongoing.
Israel has been holding talks with Uganda and has said it is “highly probable” a deal would be clinched.
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.
Israel’s Channel 10 news reported Friday that an Israeli emissary dispatched to the country has thus far failed to persuade the Ugandan authorities to sign off on a previous verbal agreement to take in a large number of migrant deportees.
Until Friday, Uganda consistently denied that a deportation deal with Israel exists, despite reports that it was accepting migrants 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 developments came earlier this month, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced, and hours later canceled, a new agreement with the UN’s refugee agency that would have seen some 16,000 African migrants resettled in Western nations and a similar number given temporary status in Israel. The prime minister froze the deal shortly after announcing it, following an outcry from right-wing politicians and advocacy groups.
The presence of the primarily Sudanese and Eritrean migrants in Israel has become a key 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.
About 1,700 asylum seekers were “willingly deported” to Uganda in the past three years, but the government wants future deportations to take place much faster, at the rate of around 600 per month, rather than 600 per year. For this to happen, it needs a country that will accept asylum seekers who were forcibly deported, a stance that is unpopular in the international community.
Asylum seekers who were “willingly deported” to Uganda and Rwanda in the past have told The Times of Israel they faced serious danger and even imprisonment after arriving in Africa without proper documents, and were not allowed to stay in Rwanda, but forced to cross the border illegally to other countries.
A news report on Friday said visas issued by Israel, purportedly on behalf of Uganda, to African asylum seekers as they are about to leave the country are “totally fake.”
The Supreme Court froze the deportations in mid-March in response to a petition.
Stuart Winer contributed to this report.