Israel announced on Monday that it has canceled a contested plan to forcibly deport migrants to Africa after reaching an agreement with the United Nation High Commission on Refugees to allow around half of them to resettle in Western countries and the other half to remain in Israel.
The deal reached between the Prime Minister’s Office and the UNHCR stipulates that Israel can deport some 16,000 migrants, while granting a “suitable” legal status to thousands of others.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said around 16,000 would remain in Israel, saying: “For every one that goes, one will remain.”
However, the UNHCR statement includes an additional 7,000 people, mentioning implementing solutions for a total of some 39,000 people over five years.
A spokeswoman for the UNHCR, Sharon Harel, confirmed that number with The Jerusalem Post
, saying that the agreement signed by Netanyahu, Interior Minister Arye Deri and Volker Turk, the UNHCR assistant high commissioner for protection, is for 39,000 migrants.
An Israeli official explained to the Post that the number 39,000 “includes some people that we haven’t fully identified yet.”
Initially, Netanyahu named Canada, Italy and Germany as countries in which the migrants could be resettled as part of the agreement.
Protesters in Jerusalem march against plan to deport asylum-seekers
However, Italy’s Corriere della Sera reported that there was no agreement with Italy on absorbing any of the migrants. Germany also reportedly denied any such agreement.
The Prime Minister’s Office then clarified that Netanyahu had just named those countries as examples of Western countries.
Harel told the Post that it’s the job of the UNHCR to identify countries to absorb the asylum-seekers and that neither of those countries are among them. She added that the high commission has identified other countries but won’t announce which ones until the plans have been finalized.
DURING A PRESS conference on Monday held at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said that the Supreme Court had banned the state from deporting migrants to countries that won’t absorb them.
The prime minister and Deri also said that the third country they intended to send the migrants to “had not stood under the pressure” and had not agreed to accept forcibly deported migrants, but only those who went voluntarily.
Appealing to the anti-migrant camp, the Prime Minister’s Office highlighted that the new plan allows for the deportations of even more migrants than previously planned, but it will all be done under the auspices of the UN and the international community.
The 16,000 who will be allowed to stay will have to meet so far undisclosed criteria, which are to be determined through cooperation between Israel and the commission.
“UNHCR appreciates the collaboration with the government of Israel to find a way out for thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese. This agreement will ensure that protection is provided to those who need it,” said Turk.
The original deportation plan, which was reportedly going to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda and Uganda, had come under severe criticism, with human rights organizations saying Israel was sending the asylum-seekers, mostly Eritrean and Sudanese nationals, to their deaths.
Weekly protests have been held in Israel against the deportation plans as well as pressure from parts of the Jewish world.
Netanyahu and Deri stressed that they had striven to maintain the previous plan, “but due to legal constraints and political difficulties on the part of the third countries, it was necessary to arrive at new and improved understandings that would ensure the continued departure of thousands of immigrants from Israel.”
The plan is divided into three stages, spread over five years, at the end of which “the reality of life in south Tel Aviv and the neighborhoods will significantly improve,” the statement from the Prime Minister’s Office read.
“The agreement was approved by the attorney-general and is consistent with international law and accepted practice.”
The government will also set up a special unit to help rehabilitate the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, which were most affected by a massive influx of African migrants in the early 2010’s.
In addition, as part of the agreement, a major effort will be put forth to more evenly distribute the asylum- seeker population across Israel and assist with job placement and training for some of the asylum-seekers who are to remain in the country.
The UNHCR statement said that vocational training will be provided to asylum-seekers for jobs in solar energy, agriculture and irrigation for employment in Israel or abroad.
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