Israel is to resettle thousands of African migrants in Western countries instead of forcibly deporting them, the Israeli government has said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it has reached an “unprecedented understanding” with the UN refugee agency in which Israel will send more than 16,000 migrants to various Western countries willing to absorb them.
The country considers the vast majority of the nearly 40,000 migrants to be job seekers and has said it has no legal obligation to keep them. Critics called the deportation plan unethical and a stain on Israel’s image as a refuge for Jewish migrants.
The new deal, which lifts the threat of forced expulsion to an unnamed African destination, is set to be implemented over five years.
In early January, the government said it would purchase tickets, obtain travel documents, and give each migrant $3,500 to leave – threatening them with arrest if they are caught still in the country after the end of March.
This followed years of violence, harassment, and arrests that Africans have faced in Israel, with state officials calling them “infiltrators,” a “cancer” to society, and economic migrants in search of opportunities.
The expulsion had drawn protests and criticism from the UN, human rights agencies, academics, who warned Mr Netanyahu of “incalculable damage” to Israel’s reputation. There have been demonstrations in Tel Aviv attracting thousands of Israelis in support of the asylum seekers.
Human rights groups advocating on behalf of the migrants challenged the deportation plan in Israel’s High Court, arguing that for many of them their expulsion, even to a different country in Africa, would endanger them.
On 15 March, the court issued a temporary order that froze the expulsion.