Rwanda on Tuesday denied it had ever made an agreement with Israel to take in deported asylum seekers, responding to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that it had backed out of a deal he had spent two years working on.
Asked to comment on Netanyahu’s Facebook statement the previous evening, Rwanda’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Olivier Nduhungirehe told Israel’s Kan public broadcaster news, “There was never a deal with Israel, neither in writing, nor verbally.”
In a dramatic about-face, Netanyahu announced Monday night that he was freezing a new agreement with the UN refugee agency, announced earlier in the day, that would see thousands of African migrants given temporary status in Israel and others deported to Western countries. The agreement with the UN, which was meant to replace the discarded deportation deal with Rwanda, was dropped by the prime minister hours after he announced it, amid fierce criticism from parts of his right-wing base.
“For the past two years I have been working with Rwanda so that it will serve as a third-part country to absorb the infiltrators expelled there, even without their consent,” the prime minister said, explaining that he had been forced to seek out a deal with the UN.
“Rwanda agreed to this and we began deporting people there,” Netanyahu continued. “In recent weeks, due to the tremendous pressure on Rwanda from the New Israel Fund and the officials in the European Union, Rwanda backed out of the agreement and refused to accept any more infiltrators from Israel.”
It was the first time any Israeli government official named Rwanda as a “third-party country,” confirming widespread reports.
“This post changes the way Rwanda is forced to respond,” Nduhungirehe told Kan the following morning. “We will respond appropriately, and that’s all I can say at this point.”
The New Israel Fund denied any involvement in Rwanda’s decision to back out of the deportation deal. The European Union’s mission in Israel also addressed the accusation in a tongue-in-cheek Twitter post.
Guess it's just one of those days. At 20:57 you congratulate #Israel & @refugees on their agreement, at 21:46 you like @IsraelMFA announcement on the deal, at 22:50 the PM suspends it and blames, among others, #EU (where #UNHCR hoped to resettle significant number of refugees).
— EU in Israel (@EUinIsrael) April 2, 2018
Netanyahu’s Facebook statement was his third on the issue on Monday.
In the afternoon, at a press conference alongside Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Netanyahu had praised the plan, saying that it would see some 16,250 African migrants in Israel resettled in “developed” Western countries, while a similar number would be given temporary residency.
“This agreement will allow for the departure from Israel of 16,250 migrants to developed countries like Canada or Germany or Italy,” he declared, without elaborating.
Netanyahu’s televised address followed a government announcement that it had scrapped the earlier controversial plan to deport the migrants and replaced it with the new one, quietly negotiated with the UN. Netanyahu said the earlier plan to deport migrants to unnamed African third-party countries, one of which he later confirmed was Rwanda, was no longer feasible. He claimed that “legal constraints as well as political difficulties” led to the cancellation of previous deportation policies.
Under the agreement with the UN, which Netanyahu called “the best possible,” the asylum seekers who remain in Israel would be dispersed in areas across the country outside of south Tel Aviv, where many of them currently reside, he said.
The earlier deportation policy, which offered each migrant $3,500 and a plane ticket, had been condemned by Israeli activists and the UN 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.
After the new agreement with the UN was announced on Monday, it came under fire from several senior members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, while Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett warned that it would “turn Israel into a paradise for infiltrators.”