African Migrants in Israel: Neither Safe nor Sound
In January 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the implementation of a policy to deport tens of thousands of African migrants who entered Israel illegally for the past 20 years.
During the last two decades, Israel has been a destination for refugees fleeing conflict, poverty and instability from African countries – such as, Sudan and Eritrea. Over the years, tens of thousands of migrants have entered Israel through Egypt’s Sinai border. Israel’s relative stability and its geographical proximity led many refugees to migrate to Israel instead of pursuing the perilous Mediterranean journey to reach the shores of Europe. According to the Israeli Interior Ministry, there are currently 42,000 African refugees in the country – many of whom are children, women or men with families (The Local, 2018).
In January 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the implementation of a policy to deport tens of thousands of African migrants who entered Israel illegally for the past 20 years. The programme gave migrants the following ultimatum: to leave Israel voluntarily by April 1, 2018 or face indefinite imprisonment with eventual forced expulsion. The plan has prompted global outcry with many critics accusing the government of violating its international obligations by deporting refugees to countries where they may face danger or imprisonment. Although earlier reports indicated that Rwanda and Uganda had agreed to accept the migrants from Israel (RCK, 2018), both countries denied the existence of such an agreement. Consequently, the fate of Israel’s African migrants has continued to pose a moral dilemma for a state that was believed to be founded as a haven for the persecuted, with international refugee agencies and rights groups arguing that countries like Rwanda and Uganda are not ready to absorb migrants.
On April 2, a day after the deadline, Israel struck a deal with the United Nations Refugee Agency - UNHCR - to cancel the mass deportation plan (Yaron and Landau, 2018). The agreement stated that Western countries, such as Germany, Canada, and Italy, would host half of the refugees - approximately 16,250 - while Israel would grant the other half with temporary residency status of up to five years. However, Netanyahu changed his mind merely 24 hours after the agreement and on April 3 the deal was formally cancelled.
The Prime Minister reasoned his move by stating: “I have listened carefully to the many comments on the agreement. As a result, and after I again weighed the advantages and disadvantages, I decided to cancel the deal. Despite legal restraints and international difficulties that are piling up, we will continue to act with determination to explore all of the options at our disposal to remove the infiltrators.”(Jeffrey Heller, 2018)
Although the April 1 deadline - which Israel’s Supreme Court suspended on March 15 - has passed and other efforts to resolve the issue yielded no results, the controversial plan continues to be examined, leaving many African refugees in fear of imminent deportation or imprisonment.