Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer has warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the public relations fallout that Israel will suffer if it goes ahead with a plan to expel tens of thousands of African migrants to a third country, Channel 10 reported Wednesday.
According to the report, Dermer told Netanyahu and senior cabinet ministers that press coverage about the deportations would cause great damage to Israel’s international reputation.
The third country has not officially been identified, though most reports have named either Rwanda or Uganda. Rwanda has denied that it has formed an agreement with Israel on the matter.
Last month, the Knesset approved an amendment to the so-called Infiltrator’s Law, mandating the closure of a detention facility and the forced deportations of Eritreans and Sudanese starting in March.
Objection to the deportations has been gaining support from social activists in Israel and from Jewish communities in the US. Among those who have spoken out are a group of EL AL pilots, who said they would refuse to fly planes carrying migrants out of the country, and Holocaust survivors who said they would hide the Africans in their homes.
There are approximately 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry. About 72 percent are Eritrean and 20% are Sudanese. The vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012. Many live in south Tel Aviv, where some residents and activists have blamed them for rising crime rates and lobbied the government for deportation.
On Tuesday, the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported that several Holocaust survivors had said they would take migrants into their homes to save them, just as they themselves had been hidden during World War II. A day earlier, three El Al pilots published Facebook posts announcing their refusal to participate in the government program by not flying them to Rwanda or Uganda.
The act is mostly symbolic, as El Al does not fly directly to Rwanda or Uganda, and deported migrants usually fly on other airlines through Ethiopia or Jordan.
According to the government plan, migrants who choose to leave by March 31 will receive a payment of $3,500, as well as free airfare and other incentives, say reports. Security in their home countries or a third country has already been guaranteed through diplomatic channels, Israeli officials have said.
Advocates for the African migrants have said that those who have already been deported suffered robberies, kidnapping and worse, after their arrival.
The Population and Immigration Authority reported that no infiltrators entered Israel in 2017, and only a small number had done so in 2016, following the construction of a barrier wall on Israel’s southern border.
Israel has already deported 20,000 of the some 60,000 African migrants who entered Israel prior to the construction of the barrier.
In a tweet Monday, the government of Rwanda said that “in reference to the rumors that have been recently spread in the media, the Government of Rwanda wishes to inform that it has never signed any secret deal with Israel regarding the relocation of African migrants.”
A second tweet added that “Rwanda’s policy vis-à-vis Africans in need of a home, temporary or permanent, within our country’s means, remains ‘open doors.'”
Netanyahu on Sunday defended the expulsions.
“We are not acting against refugees,” he said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting. “We are acting against illegal migrants, who come here not as refugees, but for work needs. Israel will continue to offer asylum for genuine refugees and will remove illegal migrants from its midst.”
Israel has granted asylum to fewer than 1% of the migrants.
In recent weeks, major American Jewish groups have called on Netanyahu not to carry out his plan to deport or jail the tens of thousands of migrants. Human rights groups and Israeli NGOs have also spoken out against the plan.