Israel halts refugee deportation plan, UN to help with resettlement [updated]

After major public campaigns inside Israel and abroad, pressure on the Rwandan government not to accept refugees deported by Israel, and ultimately effective legal challenges, Israel announces it will scrap its mass deportation plan and work with the UN to resettle African asylum seekers in Western countries. This is a huge victory but there may be more fight ahead.

[Important update added at the bottom of this article.]

Some 20,000 African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against the Israeli government’s mass deportation plan in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Some 20,000 African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against the Israeli government’s mass deportation plan in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The Israeli government announced Monday that it was abandoning its plan to deport tens of thousands of African asylum seekers to Rwanda, following “mutual understandings” it had reached with the UN Refugee Agency. Under the agreement, UNHCR will work to resettle 16,250 African asylum seekers in Western countries and Israel will give legal status to a portion of the remaining African asylum seeker population in Israel.

This is a huge victory, primarily for the thousands of asylum seekers hopefully headed to countries that, unlike Israel and Rwanda, are willing to accept them. For those refugees who will finally get to stop living in fear of deportation, indefinite imprisonment, increasingly hostile laws targeting them and their livelihoods, and the insecurity of living without any legal status, this is among the better foreseeable outcomes.

It is also fairly clear that the massive anti-deportation movement played a pivotal role in pushing the Israeli government to agree to grant status to at least some of those African asylum seekers who are not resettled by the UN. Paradoxically, it was likely the deportation plan itself that motivated the UN to make its part of the deal happen.

The combination of anti-deportation rallies across Israel and around the world, activists and journalists (+972 Magazine included) working to expose how Rwanda and Uganda refuse to actually absorb the refugees Israel deports there, public and international pressure on the Rwandan government, strategic lawsuits challenging the deportation plan itself, and the right timing, all played a role in stopping the mass deportations.

Speaking through tears Monday afternoon, Michael, a 25-years-old Eritrean asylum seeker, described the news as a huge victory. “It’s all because of our struggle. God and the nation of Israel helped us — first they stopped the deportation, but now they are going to get us status, and that is really great.”

“They wanted to send us to Uganda and Rwanda,” he said, getting cut off between sentences as passersby on the street stopped to congratulate him. “That would have been a disaster. But the people of Israel fought for our rights and in the end we won. I simply have no words.”

“This is an example of how men and women on the ground succeeded in finding legal cracks and created change in public perception,” said Sigal Avivi, a prominent refugee activist. “If we had just remained silent — the deportation would have happened and people would have been sent to find refugee again, at great risk to their lives — which has already claimed many lives.”

Now for the cautions.

  • At the time of publication, the UN Refugee Agency had not confirmed the “mutual understandings” or the details of what they entail, and the Israeli government has been known to embellish and possibly even fabricate agreements it has supposedly reached with foreign powers regarding the deportation and resettlement of African asylum seekers.
  • The UN Refugee Agency does not actually have the authority to resettle asylum seekers in third-countries. While many countries have agreements with the UN to take in refugees at the UN’s recommendation, any resettlement ultimately needs the approval of the new host country. According to the press release put out by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, the UN “will work” to resettle the asylum seekers — but there are no guarantees. In this era of anti-immigration nationalist political movements, and as Western countries are already overwhelmed by refugees from Syria and elsewhere, any celebration needs to be cautious. (Update: Netanyahu said in a press conference that some of the countries are likely to be Canada, Germany, and Italy.)
  • From what we know of the agreement, Israel only committed to give legal status to “parts” of the remaining African asylum seeker population. It is unclear how many will receive status, and what legal protections that status will give them. Furthermore, judging from what senior Israeli Population Authorities have said in recent days, we know that Israeli authorities want single, working-age asylum seeker men to be resettled in exchange for giving legal status in Israel to women and children. Those women and children are often times supported by extended family and community members; unless Israel grants full social benefits to those left behind, many of whom are economically dependent on the men slated for resettlement, they could be facing serious social and economic crises in the coming months and years. (Update: Netanyahu said in a press conference that Israel will give status to one asylum seeker for each asylum seeker the UN resettles elsewhere, meaning that 16,250 asylum seekers should be getting some sort of residency status in Israel.)

All of that said, the bottom line is that the plan to deport tens of thousands of African asylum seekers to Rwanda, a country that never had any intention of absorbing them, has been called off. The African asylum seeker community in Israel can breathe a huge sigh of relief today. Even if there is a lot more to fight for ahead, the worst outcome seems to have been averted.

Update:

Late Monday night, Benjamin Netanyahu announced that due to pressure from his political base —which is angry that he would agree to settle any African asylum seekers in Israel — he is suspending the UN plan. Whether the resettlement plan is ultimately re-instituted or not, Netanyahu’s admission that it is no longer viable to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda remains a fact. And while the fate of tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers is once again in limbo, hopefully they can sleep just a little bit sounder tonight knowing that forcible deportation to Rwanda is off the table.

Oren Ziv contributed reporting to this article.