African Country Agrees to Take in Eritrean Labor Migrants Living in Israel, Government Claims

It's not yet clear which country, though in the past year Israel has held talks with states including Ghana, South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya; FM says unaware of deal.

Barak Ravid
Amos Harel

An African country has agreed to take in Eritrean labor migrants living in Israel if Israel gives them agricultural training first.

African countries had hitherto been cool to the proposal, but a senior Israeli official said Sunday that talks were under way with several countries that might accept the migrants; he said the resettlement process would probably take place over five years at least.

In the past year, Hagai Hadas, a former senior Mossad official, has represented Israel in talks with Ghana, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and other countries over the issue. The number of Eritrean labor migrants in Israel is estimated at around 35,000.

The official speaking Sunday declined to name the African country in question. He said the agreement was "in the framework of a broader strategic relationship." The countries with which Israel was holding talks "share many interests with Israel," he said.

Still, the resettlement process is expected to take years. "It won't be bing, bang, boom," the official said. "We aren't going to put 20,000 Eritreans on planes and throw them into the desert. It will be conducted entirely under the supervision of the attorney general."

Earlier in the day, the State Prosecutor's Office had told the High Court of Justice that such an agreement existed.

A year ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Hadas to coordinate talks with the African countries. In his efforts, Hadas has worked with the Interior Ministry's immigration department and the Israel Prison Service, as well as the Public Security Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry.

Hadas had proposed that Israel give the Eritrean migrants agricultural training and set up a farm in the country that accepted them. This would ensure that the migrants had a place to work. Israel also offered incentives such as financial grants, medical aid and infrastructure assistance to any country that agreed to take the migrants in.

The senior Israeli official said Israel wanted to handle the Eritrean issue the way it returned South Sudanese when South Sudan became an independent state. "Whoever returned there reintegrated well and even contributed to this new country," said the official. "They came from Israel with money, skills and knowledge and jump-started the economy. The Eritreans want to make a living, and they understand that they can't do that here."

The senior official's comments and the announcement by the State Prosecutor's Office were surprising because African countries had hitherto been cool to Israel's proposal. Officials of some countries had told Hadas that they were dealing with their own refugee flows from African countries.

In any case, Foreign Ministry officials were excluded from the talks with the African states. Foreign Ministry officials say that at a certain stage Hadas opted to carry out his meetings with the help of officials from a different Israeli government agency, not the Foreign Ministry.

As a result, senior Foreign Ministry officials were caught unaware by the State Prosecutor Office's announcement Sunday. "We are not familiar with any such agreement," said a senior Foreign Ministry official. "It will be interesting to see if in the coming weeks thousands of Eritreans will begin flying from here. We are skeptical about this happening."

Israeli assistance offered

In the past year Hadas personally approached several African states, offering that Israel establish agricultural farms in their territory for refugees from Eritrea. The offer included an obvious benefit: Israeli assistance in promoting agriculture, that may have included an offer to improve trade with Israel. These states included, among others South Sudan, Ethiopia, and probably Uganda as well.

Hadas travelled to Africa often in order to promote the contacts. He briefed senior officials in the Defense Minstry, and was assisted by ministry officials, mostly officials of the cooperation and security export division. The intention was probably that division officials would assist in establishing the farms.

The Defense Ministry has experience in similar areas, including construction of a village for refugees from the eathrquake in Turkey in the end of the 1990's. While the Defense Ministry supported Hadas' initiative it seems that the Foreign Ministry was opposed to some of Hadas' ideas, fearing that they would damage Israel's relations with some African states.

Eritreans in Israel protesting against dictatorship in their homeland on Eritrean Independence Day .
Eritreans in Israel protesting against dictatorship in their homeland on Eritrean Independence Day.Credit: Moti Milrod