Israel scraps plan to expel African migrants

The Israeli government has scrapped its plan to forcibly deport African migrants, a move that had sparked protests

Jerusalem (AFP) – Israel announced on Tuesday it has abandoned controversial plans to expel African migrants who entered the Jewish state illegally, after failing to find a country willing to host them.

The plan had targeted some 42,000 migrants of Eritrean and Sudanese origin currently living in Israel and denied refugee status or asylum.

Government legal advisers informed the Supreme Court of the plan’s cancellation after certain unspecified countries refused to host the migrants, a government source said.

“At this stage, the possibility of removal to a third country is no longer relevant,” the advisers said in a statement.

Migrants and aid workers have said Israel was negotiating with Rwanda and Uganda to accept the deportees.

The deportation plan has attracted a wave of criticism, including from the UN refugee agency, Holocaust survivors, and parts of Israeli civil society.

The government originally announced a plan under which it would present migrants with $3,500 (2,800 euros) and the opportunity to leave on their own accord, or face indefinite imprisonment with eventual forced expulsion.

In early April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to cancel the plan, saying a new agreement with the UN would allow 16,000 migrants to be transferred to “developed countries like Canada, Germany or Italy”.

In exchange, Israel would give residency to an equal number of migrants.

But the premier cancelled the plan several hours later, after caving to pressure from his right-wing base.

Shortly after news of Tuesday’s cancellation broke, Netanyahu tweeted that he had instructed Interior Minister Aryeh Deri “to immediately prepare for the reopening of the detention facilities to the infiltrators”.

The prime minister was referring to the February closure of the Holot detention centre in southern Israel.

Some 200 migrants detained for refusing to leave Israel were released in mid-April following a Supreme Court ruling.

Israel’s highest judicial authority had ordered their release because of the government’s inability to conclude an agreement with third-party host countries.

Human rights groups have long condemned Israel for its immigration policy and treatment of Africans seeking asylum.

Most of the migrants arrived to Israel after 2007, mainly from the Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Security along the once porous border has since been signficantly tightened.

Most of the migrants have settled in a number of poor neighbourhoods in the coastal city of Tel Aviv, the country’s economic capital.

Amnesty International welcomed the cancellation, but expressed concern government’s plan but voiced concern over the continued practise of “voluntary” expulsions.

“Israel is still conducting what it calls ‘voluntary’ deportations, though in reality there is nothing voluntary about them,” the London-based rights watchdog said in a statement.

“Israel remains under the obligation not to transfer anyone to a country where they would be at real risk of serious human rights violations,” it added.