Uncertainty reigns for African migrants in Israel a week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abandoned a plan to resolve the country’s refugee crisis, just one day after announcing it.
In the agreement with the United Nations’ refugee agency, half of Israel’s roughly 32,500 African migrants would have remained in the country as legal residents, while the other half would have resettled in Western countries, with U.N. help.
African migrants and immigration activists saw the new deal as a major breakthrough. The deal replaced a plan announced earlier this year to deport all African migrants living in Israel to African countries.
State of uncertainty
Moran Mekamel, head of the Negev Refugees Center in southern Israel, told VOA that Netanyahu’s decision last week to cancel the agreement left tens of thousands of asylum-seekers and refugees in limbo.
“It is the declaration of the politicians that it’s very clear for many of us that they don’t want refugees here, and they’re doing everything they can to make those people go,” Mekamel said.
Israel’s High Court has given the government until Tuesday to provide an update on the plan or outline a new approach. A report Sunday in The Times of Israel said the government plans to announce a deal with Uganda to accept thousands of immigrants.
But Mekamel doubts a solution is near.
He said the plan announced April 2, to give some African migrants temporary status in Israel and to transfer others to the West, was a “win-win” that would also benefit Israeli citizens in south Tel Aviv, where many of the asylum-seekers live.
But the plan generated immediate political backlash.
The head of the nationalist Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, objected that its approval “would cause generations of crying and set a precedent in Israel granting residency for illegal infiltrators,” the Associated Press reported him as tweeting.
Moin Haroon is an asylum-seeker who fled a genocide in Darfur, Sudan, in 2012. He spent 18 months in Israel’s Saharonim Prison, where, he said, he participated in a hunger strike to demand better treatment. Haroon spent another year in the Holot migrant detention center. He was released in 2015, but since then has lived without any paperwork or rights.
“As you can hear, they call us a cancer. They call us infiltrators. Even the prime minister said we are more dangerous than the terrorists in Sinai,” Haroon told VOA.
Haroon said he expected better treatment in Israel and rejected the insinuation that he is a terrorist or a danger to Israeli society.
“Everybody in this world knows what is going on in Darfur. There is a genocide and ethnic cleansing going on there,” he said. “We fled our country for this reason. And the Israelis claim this is a democratic and liberal country? To treat us like this?”
The treatment of African asylum-seekers in Israel has a racial component, he added.
“For me, they’re just asking us to be white, because there is no other reason at all. This is completely racist, what is going on here,” Haroon said.
VOA contacted Netanyahu’s spokesman, David Keyes, for comment. In a brief phone response, Keyes referred to the prime minister’s recent Facebook post on the issue.
Netanyahu, after reconsidering his resettlement plan, wrote that he had “decided to strive for a new agreement” concerning the “infiltrators,” according to a Google translation of an April 2 Facebook post in Hebrew. He also described himself as “attentive,” especially to “the people of South Tel Aviv.”
Right to return?
Immigration to Israel is based on religion and ethnicity. According to strict interpretation of the Law of Return, all Jewish people may return to Israel and become citizens. That process, called “aliyah”, also can be undertaken by those with Jewish ancestors or spouses, provided they complete a formal conversion course.
According to The Times of Israel, about 29,000 people legally immigrated to Israel last year, including 1,312 Ethiopians. About 14,000 of the immigrants came from Russia and Ukraine.
Halefom Sultan is an Eritrean asylum-seeker who now resides in Tel Aviv. He also spent time in Holot detention center. He said many thousands of Europeans live in Israel illegally, but only African asylum-seekers and migrants become targets.
“This is like a policy based on race, because in this country there are more than 90,000 people who don’t have legal papers that come from Eastern European countries and other countries,” Sultan said. “There are a lot of people forced to leave their countries.”
Last November, The Times of Israel reported that tens of thousands of people from Eastern Europe have overstayed their tourist visas and remained in the country as refugees or asylum-seekers since 2016.