Netanyahu Backs Out of African Migrant Deal with UNHCR
Israel’s migrant population was given brief hope of reprieve when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a deal with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Monday to resettle 16,000 African migrants to Western nations and allow the other 16,000 to remain in Israel. But after facing backlash from members of his conservative Likud party, Netanyahu suspended the deal hours after he announced it, and officially cancelled the deal the next day.
Gadi Wolfsfeld, Professor of political communications at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya near Tel Aviv, said that, “To sign an agreement and the next day to renege on it, that’s awful. I guess that means you can’t sign anything with Israel.” Israel’s prime minister is steadily losing credibility abroad and at home, due in part to internal corruption investigations, and to Israeli aggression towards Palestine, including the recent Gaza protester killings.
Besides harming Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reputation, backtracking on the deal took the hope for a better life away from many migrants. Africans, primarily from Sudan and Eritrea, started migrating to Israel in 2005, and continued to cross into Israel until the Israelis secured their border in 2012. Most of the migrants settled in southern Tel Aviv, where they are struggling to make enough money to support their families. Many parents are forced to send their children to “baby warehouses,” essentially informal nurseries, in order to work. These nurseries are cheap, but unsafe—five babies died in the nurseries in 2015 due to negligence or inadequate care.
Israel has been unwilling to help its migrant population. In January, it offered migrants $3,500 and a plane ticket to leave Israel voluntarily, but those who refused faced detention and expulsion. In 2016, the European Union accepted more than 92% of Eritrean asylum applications, while Israel has accepted only 12 out of 15,000 applications from Sudanese and Eritreans from 2013 to 2017. Israel claims that these migrants are merely looking for work even though human rights organizations say that most or all left out of fear of persecution in their home countries.
The migrant crisis has brought about a religious debate in Israel about the obligations and purpose of the Jewish state. According to an article in The Atlantic, Israel feels it “has both a particular obligation to protect Jews and, some Jews believe, a general responsibility to represent Jewish values to the world.” Netanyahu, reflecting his right wing coalition’s views, refers to the migrants as “infiltrators,” but some Israelis support protection of the migrants. In January, 2,000 migrants and Israelis protested Israel’s intent to deport migrants, and pilots for El Al, an Israeli airline, said they would refuse to fly forcibly deported African asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Now that Prime Minister Netanyahu has called off the deal, Israel yet again faces the question of what to do with the migrants who are struggling to survive and seeking stability. UN spokesperson William Spindler is still hopeful that a solution can be found for the asylum seekers. “It is in the interest of Israel, because it will be able to fulfill its international obligations, but it will receive help from other countries. And the international community will also play a very important role in showing solidarity with Israel, taking some 16,000 of these refugees and asylum seekers,” he said.
Without backing from the right wing coalition, it seems unlikely that Prime Minister Netanyahu will strike a deal that doesn’t result in most, if not all, African migrants leaving Israel. In order to help African migrants living in limbo, more people ought to heed the beliefs of Rabbi Susan Silverman, who co-founded Milat Israel, a sanctuary project which was set up to help absorb refugees into communities around the country. “We have a clear religious mandate to welcome the stranger. But also we have a history of having needed people to take risks for us, to open their homes for us, to help us and we are rejecting that legacy.”