TEL AVIV, Israel – Israel scrapped its plan to deport tens
of thousands of migrants back to Africa, after mass demonstrations against the policy in the streets of Tel Aviv and criticism from abroad.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spearheaded the
program to deport about 38,000 migrants to an African nation that wasn’t identified, said Monday that the deal had fallen through and that his government had instead reached an agreement with the United Nations refugee agency to send at least 16,250 to Western countries.
The others will be given temporary residency permits, he said at a news conference in Jerusalem. “We’re doing the best thing possible through an unprecedented agreement” with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Netanyahu said. Among the countries that may accept the Africans are Italy, Germany and Canada, he said.
As many as 60,000 people, most fleeing Sudan, Eritrea and other countries with wretched
human rights records, crossed illegally into Israel through the porous border with Egypt as asylum seekers between 2005 and 2012. Many settled in poor sections of Tel Aviv, to the chagrin of residents who appealed to the government to send them away.
Netanyahu and other politicians who objected to their presence insisted they didn’t flee persecution but came as economic migrants seeking a better life.
They called them a “cancer” and a “scourge” and warned that they would over time dilute Israel’s Jewish majority. The government erected a barrier along the border with Egypt that stopped the migration.
‘Garden of Eden’
Supporters of the original deportation plan attacked Netanyahu for buckling to political pressure and allowing more than half the Africans to stay. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a Cabinet member who leads the Jewish Home party, said the deal with the U.N. agency “will turn Israel into a Garden of Eden for infiltrators.”
Diplomats from Germany and Italy said they weren’t aware that agreements had been signed to accept the asylum seekers, according to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper and the Italian Ansa agency, which didn’t name the officials.
The migrants’ champions in Israel defended them as genuine asylum seekers and argued that the Jewish state, born in part on the ashes of the Holocaust, shouldn’t expel people who said they faced persecution if returned to Africa.
Unlike countries in Europe that recognized thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese as political
refugees, Israel granted refugee status to very small numbers. Many others were sent to detention centers, where they were pressured to accept payments to leave Israel.
Over the years, about 22,000 were sent to African countries including South Sudan, Rwanda and Uganda.
After Netanyahu and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri in September unveiled their plan to deport
the migrants, rights organizations sought to help them apply for refugee status and held
demonstrations that brought out thousands of Israelis from around the country.
Major international Jewish organizations and members of the U.S. Congress called on Netanyahu to cancel the deportations.
The new plan to send the asylum seekers to the West and give residency status to the rest will be phased in over five years, Netanyahu said. The government also pledged to allocate money to rehabilitate Tel Aviv neighborhoods where the Africans are concentrated and encourage many of them to move to other parts of the country.