Some 16,250 African migrants in Israel will be resettled in “developed” Western countries, while a similar number will be allowed to stay and given temporary residency, under a new agreement reached with the UN refugee agency, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday.
“This agreement will allow for the departure from Israel of 16,250 migrants to developed countries like Canada or Germany or Italy,” Netanyahu said, without elaborating. Other reports said the United States and Sweden would also take in some of the number.
Netanyahu made the announcement in televised remarks after the government said it had scrapped a controversial plan to deport African migrants and replaced it with a new one, quietly negotiated with the UN, that would see thousands sent to Western countries.
Netanyahu said the earlier plan to deport migrants to Rwanda and Uganda was no longer feasible.
Speaking at a press conference alongside Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Netanyahu stressed that “legal constraints as well as political difficulties on the part of [Uganda and Rwanda]” led to the cancellation of previous deportation policies.
Under the agreement, which Netanyahu said was “the best possible,” the asylum seekers who remain in Israel will be dispersed in areas across the country outside of south Tel Aviv, where a majority of them currently reside. Netanyahu vowed to prioritize rehabilitating the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, alongside implementing the international agreement.
He said that his policies over the years, including the construction of a fence along the Egyptian border, had prevented an outcome in which close to a million migrants would inundate Israel and “endanger its Jewish and democratic nature.”
According to the agreement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will work to find homes in Western countries for at least 16,250 of the asylum seekers in Israel, while Israel will agree to give temporary status to the remainder — also some 16,250. The status of this latter group will be reevaluated after five years.
Initially, those who leave will do so on a voluntary basis, and/or on the basis of existing applications they have made to various Western countries, Israel’s Channel 10 news said.
UNHCR confirmed the agreement in a statement later Monday, saying, “A joint working group will be set up with a series of objectives and a timetable to implement solutions for some 39,000 people over five years.”
“Under the agreement, UNHCR, with the support of receiving counties, will work to facilitate the departure to third countries to be determined of some 16,000 Eritreans and Sudanese under various programs, including sponsorship, resettlement, family reunion and labor migration schemes, while others will be receiving a suitable legal status in Israel,” the statement said.
“In addition, UNHCR and the State of Israel will design programmes to encourage Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to move out of the neighborhoods in South Tel Aviv where they have mostly congregated,” it added. “Vocational training will also be provided to asylum-seekers for jobs in solar energy, agriculture and irrigation for employment abroad or in Israel.”
Deri welcomed the deal as well, insisting that the outcome of “months of under-the-radar talks” with the United Nations had resulted in “the best possible outcome” for the Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv.
“It is only thanks to the agreement that we can disperse the migrants throughout the country,” Deri said.
“We saved immense sums of money,” he added, referring to the closing of the Holot Detention Center, which cost Israel nearly NIS 250 million annually. Deri said the funds saved would be used, among other things, for the rehabilitation of south Tel Aviv.
In the Knesset, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle welcomed the deal.
Opposition Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich tweeted that the agreement was “a tremendous victory for a citizens’ campaign and the voice of morality and reason against racism and hatred of the stranger. The framework that the government is presenting appears to be fair and moral, both on the international level and out of concern, first of all, for the residents of southern [Tel Aviv] neighborhoods.”
Communication Minister Ayoub Kara of the ruling Likud party tweeted that the deal shows that Netanyahu and his government could be relied upon to deliver on its promises.
“The framework plan for solving the problem of labor migrants in Israel proves again what a good and effective government there is in Israel,” he said. “It is a fair framework, just and moral, that is supported by international organizations, and also takes care to resolve the distress of the residents of south Tel Aviv. What the prime minister promises he keeps.”
The new head of the left-wing Meretz party, Tamar Zandberg, tweeted that the cancellation of the expulsion was “simply an amazing and inspiring achievement of a determined and just civil and public campaign. Pride.”
After the agreement was announced, a leading south Tel Aviv campaigner who had campaigned for the deportation of all the migrants rejected the plan and said her struggle would continue.
“The agreement is a disgrace to Israel and a direct result of the total failure of government policies,” Sheffi Paz said. “This proposal was presented to the heads of the campaign as a fait accompli and was presented as a ‘victory’ along with the expectation that we will give it our approval. The residents of south Tel Aviv will continue their campaign.”
The Prime Minister’s Office, which announced the new deal earlier Monday in a statement, said most of those who will stay would have remained in Israel in any event.
The new plan, under the auspices of the United Nations, will replace the previous plan, due to go into effect Sunday, which was to expel the migrants to Rwanda and Uganda.
The earlier deportation policy, 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. 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.
The Supreme Court froze the deportations in mid-March in response to a petition.
The PMO said that the new plan had been approved by the attorney general and was in keeping with international law and practice.
At the same time the PMO announced a special committee, headed by former Kadima MK Avigdor Yitzhaki, to improve the quality of life in south Tel Aviv, where many of the asylum seekers live.
In addition, as part of the deal, the government will focus on providing occupational guidance, vocational training and other assistance to the migrants to help them integrate into Israel. It will also work to disperse them around the country, so that they will not be concentrated in a single area.
Human rights activists in Israel and major US Jewish organizations had long urged the Israeli government not to go ahead with its plan to force the migrants to choose between jail and deportation.