Tel Aviv (AFP) – In a park near Tel Aviv’s central bus station, dozens of African migrants waited for Israelis to offer them work, trying to eke out a living in a country where many want them to leave.
Only days before, a solution had been announced that would regularise the situation for many migrants and end the potential forced deportation of thousands of others.
But in a stunning turnaround on April 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled the agreement with the UN refugee agency, bowing to pressure from his right-wing base to scrap the deal.
“I have no future,” Mohamed Idris, a 32-year-old from Sudan, said as he sat on the grass in the park hoping an Israeli contractor would come by and offer work.
“We do not know where the wind will blow us,” said Idris, who arrived in Israel six years ago and rents a room in Tel Aviv with four others.
Netanyahu’s reversal of an agreement that offered a solution for the mainly Sudanese and Eritrean migrants came as a surprise to many, coming only hours after he announced the deal in a televised speech.
But in doing so, many analysts saw Netanyahu — already under pressure over a string of graft probes — as giving in to demands from his traditional supporters and ministers in his right-wing government, including those who want to see all of the migrants expelled.
The presence of African migrants in Israel has become a political issue, and Netanyahu has repeatedly referred to them as “infiltrators”.
He was hit with an avalanche of criticism immediately after announcing the agreement with the UN, which would have allowed thousands of migrants to remain in Israel at least temporarily.
His reversal hours later was welcomed by some residents of south Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants also live.
“All should be deported. This is my opinion,” south Tel Aviv resident Meir Bachar said.
– ‘Colour of our skin’ –
“I don’t want to sound radical or as someone who discriminates. It’s not right to deport some of them and to leave others here.”
Other Israelis have opposed their deportation, including Holocaust survivors who say the country has a special duty to migrants.
A poll released in February showed nearly two-thirds of Jewish Israelis supported a government plan for deportations.
Jewish Israelis opposed to the presence of the migrants say they are only concerned about maintaining the Jewish character of the country.
Some also speak of the migrants bringing a different culture, while others allege they have brought the neighbourhood down, though the area near the bus station has long been economically depressed.
Since the arrival of the migrants, African shops and cafes have become common in the area.
Some of the migrants say they feel they are being targeted for racist reasons.
“They want to kick us out only because of the colour of our skin,” said Halofom Sultan, chairman of the Eritrean immigrants committee.
Netanyahu had worked out the agreement with the UN refugee agency because he said he had little choice.
Under a previous controversial plan announced in January, his government intended to give the migrants a choice between leaving voluntarily or facing indefinite imprisonment with eventual forced expulsion.
As the migrants could face danger or imprisonment if returned to their homelands, Israel offered to relocate them to an unnamed African country, later revealed to be Rwanda.
Rwanda however said it would not accept the deal.
The UN agreement provided a compromise by which a minimum of 16,250 migrants would be resettled in Western nations.
In exchange, Israel would grant temporary residency to one migrant for each one resettled elsewhere, bringing some certainty to their legal situation.
– ‘Then I ran away’ –
According to interior ministry figures, there are currently some 42,000 African migrants in Israel, half of them children, women or men with families who are not facing immediate deportation.
They began entering Israel in 2007, after perilous journeys that led them to what was then a porous Egyptian border.
The border has since been strengthened, all but ending illegal crossings.
With the UN deal now cancelled, Israel is still reportedly hoping to deport migrants to a third country — Uganda.
But Uganda has said it cannot accept migrants expelled involuntarily.
In her small apartment on a recent day, Yordonsh Tekla, a 28-year-old Eritrean, was cooking lunch to invite her friends for Easter. Pictures of Jesus hung on the wall.
“My husband came to Israel in 2010,” she said.
“After that the Eritrean authorities jailed me and my mother-in-law for one week… Then I ran away and arrived in Israel in 2011.”
Fredi Karabuskel, also from Eritrea, said he could not return home and did not want to be sent to an unfamiliar African nation.
“I really think people here are OK, but the prime minister hates black people,” he said.
“What he’s doing is racism.”