Refugee resettlement plan: israel suspends agreement

Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted to resettle African immigrants in other countries with the help of the UNHCR. Now he has changed his mind.

Netanyahu changes his mind Photo: ap

The option of sending some 20,000 refugees in Israel to Rwanda or, alternatively, indefinite detention is off the table. The deportation plans of Israel’s head of government Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Arie Deri failed at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, which made the willingness of a third country to accept the refugees a condition. Rwanda, on the other hand, presupposed the refugees’ voluntariness. Israel has now, Netanyahu declared in a press conference on Monday afternoon, reached an agreement with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that within the next five years "16,250 people will be accepted by Western countries, such as Canada and Germany," and the same number of refugees will be granted residence and work permits in Israel.

The surprise announcement was met with such resentment from coalition partners that Netanyahu suspended the agreement just hours later. In talks with his coalition partners and residents of south Tel Aviv, he intends to reach a generally satisfactory decision shortly.

In Berlin, too, the surprise seemed great. A request to accept refugees living in Israel "in Germany" was "not known" to the Federal Ministry of the Interior, it said in a statement. However, he said, Germany "has always comprehensively fulfilled its humanitarian obligations in recent years, including by taking in resettlement refugees, and will continue to do so in the future." Netanyahu later acknowledged that he had cited Germany "only as an example for Western countries." The responsibility to negotiate final agreements would rest with the UN, he said.

In early January, the Israeli government had decided on a gradual expulsion of the uninvited guests, who were asked to choose between "voluntary departure" and indefinite imprisonment. The controversial procedure initially targeted only single men, luring them with a $3,500 bonus and offering them a one-way ticket to obscurity. In total, a good 40,000 people officially designated as "infiltrants" live in Israel, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan, including 5,000 children. Some of the Africans have already been integrated to such an extent that the Interior Ministry is currently seeking solutions for only 32,500 people.

Arie Deri, Israel’s interior minister.

"I decide where they go".

The initial agreement reached with the UNHCR provides for a strange 1:1 arrangement. For every refugee sent to a Western country, another would be allowed to stay in Israel. "I decide where they go," Interior Minister Deri said during the press conference. The refugees who remain in Israel are to be distributed throughout the country. Currently, a large number of them live in poor neighborhoods in southern Tel Aviv. The Interior Minister expressed clear frustration with the Supreme Court. The latter thwarted the deportation plan and, moreover, had in the past arranged for detention restrictions at the Holot camp, which he called a "nice place to rest." Deri apparently does not seek a regular asylum process.

Rwanda denies agreement with Israel

Netanyahu also regretted having to deviate from his original plan. "We found a third country that is willing to take people in," he explained. However, that country had "not withstood the pressure" and had reneged on the agreement that had been reached. For weeks, there was talk in Israel of a "secret agreement." The fact is that Rwanda repeatedly signaled willingness in principle to accept people, but only if they come voluntarily. "Rwanda will never accept an African migrant who is deported against his will," tweeted Deputy Foreign Minister Olivier Nduhungirehe two months ago. Netanyahu’s accusations were met with some resentment in Kigali. "There has never been an agreement with Israel," Nduhungirehe declared Tuesday night, announcing "a reaction" from Rwanda.

Some of Netanyahu’s party colleagues and coalition partners also signaled a need for clarification. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Habait Hajehudi settler party, spoke of a "dangerous message" Israel was sending to the world. "Anyone who manages to enter Israel illegally," he tweeted, would be "rewarded" with a residency permit in Israel or in a Western country. Likud MP Oren Chasan criticized Netanyahu’s "capitulation." "A little public pressure and this `strong’ government gives in."

As the April 1 deadline for the forced eviction approached, protests against it grew stronger. Thousands of migrants marched in front of the Knesset (Parliament) in Jerusalem and in front of the Embassy of Rwanda. Some men put chains on their bare torsos and simulated a slave market. El Al pilots wanted to refuse to transport the people into the unknown, and renowned authors, including Amos Oz and David Grossman, appealed to the government to act "morally, humanely and with compassion."

Human rights activists announced they would hide people in their homes. Interior Minister Deri wants to take advantage of Israelis’ willingness and called Tuesday for help in integrating those who are to remain in Israel.