Israel’s UN migrant deal scrapped

African asylum seekers set up a mock slave auction as part of a protest outside the Ministry of Defence on Tuesday. Photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday officially cancelled an agreement made with the United Nations just hours earlier that would have relocated thousands of African asylum seekers to Western countries.

The cancellation came a day after the deal was first announced and soon after the Prime Minister said he would freeze it to consult with members of his government coalition as well as the residents of the neighbourhood, where many of the migrants live.

“In the past 24 hours, I have held many consultations with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, with professionals and representatives of residents of southern Tel Aviv,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday afternoon.

“I listened attentively to criticism of the agreement. As a result, and after evaluating a new balance of advantages and disadvantages, I decided to cancel the agreement.”

He also said: “Despite the growing legal and international difficulties, we will continue to act with determination to exhaust all the possibilities available to us to remove the infiltrators. At the same time, we will continue to seek additional solutions.”

Under the agreement announced on Monday with the UN High Commission for Refugees, Israel would have allowed thousands of African migrants to stay in the country on a temporary residency permit for up to five years. The rest, some 16,000 or so, would have been settled in countries such as Canada, Germany and Italy.

The deal put Netanyahu under fire from several conservative politicians, including some in his own Likud party. Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Jewish Home party, said the agreement would “turn Israel into a paradise for infiltrators”.

It is not known what will happen now to the up to 40,000 African asylum seekers in Israel; an Israeli government plan to deport them this month was put on hold following the announcement of the UN deal.

Israel had been scheduled to begin deporting the migrants next week under a plan and budget approved by the country’s cabinet in January.

The Supreme Court had frozen the deportations in mid-March after a petition filed by opponents, and had been waiting for the government to respond to the petition.

According to the government plan, migrants who had chosen to leave by March 31 would receive a payment of $3500 as well as free airfare and other incentives.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement on Monday that the original mass deportation plan was cancelled “because of legal considerations and political difficulties on behalf of third-party countries”.