A coalition of American Jewish groups has called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to uphold a deal reached with the UN to resettle some 40,000 African migrants and not deport them to unnamed African countries.
The letter sent Thursday urged Netanyahu “to re-commit to an agreement with the UN refugee agency [UNHCR] to guarantee the safety of the 39,000 asylum seekers currently within their borders.”
The letter comes following a dramatic about-face late Monday evening in which Netanyahu announced he was canceling a new agreement with the UN’s refugee agency that would have seen thousands of African migrants resettled in Western nations and thousands more given temporary status in Israel. The prime minister froze the deal mere hours after announcing the plan.
The agreement was designed to end the possibility of forced deportations of thousands of migrants from Israel to Rwanda. Under the agreement, a minimum of 16,250 migrants would have instead been resettled in Western nations.
In return, Israel would have granted temporary residency to an equal number of migrants.
“We share a deep hope that Israel, as a nation founded and settled by refugees, will protect victims of persecution who have fled their countries seeking safety,” said the letter signed by 11 Jewish groups including the Anti-Defamation League, HIAS, J-Street and the New Israel Fund.
Netanyahu has specifically blamed the New Israel Fund for torpedoing the original agreement to deport the migrants to Rwanda. This has been denied both by the NGO and by Rwanda.
“We appreciate your acknowledgement of ‘the growing legal and international limitation’ on forcibly deporting asylum seekers to countries that are not prepared to receive them,” the letter said. “We hope that this acknowledgement means that Israel will not resume its plans to deport asylum seekers to unnamed countries in Africa.”
But the Israeli government on Thursday said there was a “high probability” an unnamed country, widely reported to be Uganda, would absorb African migrants deported from Israel.
In a document submitted to the High Court of Justice, the state requested permission to extend the detention of 212 Sudanese and Eritrean migrants in a holding facility in southern Israel until a final deportation deal was reached.
After dispatching a special envoy on Wednesday for negotiations with the unnamed country, the state argued the talks were encouraging, but said more time was needed to clinch a final agreement.
However, the Ugandan president’s office told the Israeli Haaretz daily later Thursday that it knew of no deal and was not prepared to accept any asylum seekers being deported from Israel against their will.
The state’s assessment was laid out in a response to a High Court petition filed on behalf of a slew of human rights organizations that argued that the continued imprisonment of the asylum seekers was illegal.
On Wednesday, 58 African asylum seekers were freed from the Saharonim Prison after a controversial plan to deport them to Rwanda fell apart.
The state informed the court on Wednesday it will free the remaining Saharonim detainees if the agreement with the “second country” similarly collapses. That deal was also believed to be imperiled as Uganda said Tuesday it will not accept asylum seekers from the Jewish state.
Following a stream of rumors, the East African country’s Foreign Affairs Minister Henry Okello Oryem on Tuesday denied the existence of an agreement with Israel on the issue.
“We will insist that the airlines return [the asylum seekers] to the country where they came from,” he said in a statement. “We do not have a contract, any understanding, formal or informal, with Israel for them to dump their refugees here.”
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.