UN refugee envoy urges Israel to reconsider nixed deal to resettle migrants
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UN refugee envoy urges Israel to reconsider nixed deal to resettle migrants

Damtew Dessalegne criticizes Jerusalem policy that sees asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan as infiltrators, calls on Jewish state to provide ‘humane’ solution

Detained African migrants standing outside the Holot detention center, located in Israel's southern Negev desert near the Egyptian border, February 4, 2018. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)
Detained African migrants standing outside the Holot detention center, located in Israel's southern Negev desert near the Egyptian border, February 4, 2018. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)

The representative of the United Nations refugee agency in Israel urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday to reconsider a UN proposal to resettle roughly half of the country’s African migrants.

The premier had accepted the deal last year, only to change his mind 24 hours later under pressure from his right-wing coalition partners.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Global refugee forum in Geneva, Damtew Dessalegne told the Haaretz daily that the agreement canceled by Netanyahu is still on the table and is “the best way to progress.”

The UN agreement would see roughly 16,250 African migrants currently in Israel — mainly from Sudan and Eritrea — resettled in developing Western countries while a similar number would remain in Israel and receive temporary residency. Under the agreement, most of those who would leave would be single men, while families, women and children would generally stay.

Netanyahu had announced the deal with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in a press conference in April 2018, calling it “the best possible solution.”

Damtew Dessalegne speaks at the African Students in Israel conference on October 3, 2019. (Screen capture/YouTube)

But in a dramatic about-face less than 24 hours later, Netanyahu announced he was canceling the agreement following an outcry from anti-migrant activists and others in his right-wing base.

Dessalegne said that with the situation still unsolved, the roughly 32,000 migrants from Eritrea and Sudan have “found themselves in a legal and social limbo for over a decade. A viable and humane solution must be found that offers them protection, but also takes into account Israel’s demographic concerns and other interests.”

The UNHCR representative asserted that his organization’s proposal “is a win-win strategy that would benefit both the government and the people in need of and deserving protection.”

“Given the right environment and the right support, these refugees are capable of not only rebuilding their lives, but contributing meaningfully to their host society economically, socially and culturally,” Dessalegne added.

He went on to criticize the policy of Israeli authorities to consider asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea as “infiltrators” or “illegal migrants,” pointing out that Jerusalem at the same time has recognized that deporting them back to their home countries could place them in danger.

“There should be no illusion that the Eritreans and Darfuris who fled to Israel over the years were moving voluntarily, in search of a better life,” he told Haaretz.

The Africans, mainly from war-torn Sudan and dictatorial Eritrea, began arriving in Israel in 2005, through its porous border with Egypt, after Egyptian forces violently quashed a refugee demonstration in Cairo and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel. Tens of thousands crossed the desert border, often after enduring dangerous journeys, before Israel completed a barrier in 2012 that stopped the influx.

African migrants protesting outside the Holot detention facility in February 2014. (Flash90)

While the migrants say they are refugees fleeing conflict or persecution, Israel views them as job-seekers who threaten the Jewish character of the state.

Israel’s previous 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.

Antagonism in Israel toward migrants has hardened in recent years with an estimated 35,000 African migrants in the country facing hostility from lawmakers and residents in communities with high migrant populations. According to a Pew Research Center survey last month, 57 percent of Israelis oppose accepting refugees fleeing war and conflict, ranking well behind that of citizens in many other Western countries.

The High Court of Justice has pushed back against government plans to jail or deport the migrants, saying a solution in line with international norms must be found.

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