Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Canada, Germany and Italy are among the Western countries that will take in asylum seekers from Israel after the country signed a deal with the UN refugee agency canceling its mass deportation plan.
Speaking at a news conference, Netanyahu said the plan to deport asylum seekers to "a third country" was scrapped when "it became clear that the third country did not meet the [required] conditions," adding that this country "did not withstand the pressure."
Interior Minister Arye Dery added that following tough negotiations with the UNHCR, Israel had agreed to resettle one asylum seeker in a Western country for every asylum seeker awarded temporary residency status in Israel. In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office gave these numbers as 16,250 each. Currently more than 38,000 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea live in Israel.
For its part, the German embassy in Israel told Haaretz that Germany had not received any request from the UN refugee agency or from the Israeli government to absorb African asylum seekers deported by Israel. The Italian Foreign ministry, in a statement to the Italian newspaper La Republica, denied any agreement with Israel regarding asylum seekers as well.
Later on Monday, sources in the Prime Minister's Office explained that Netanyahu merely mentioned those countries (Germany, Italy and Canada) as examples. According to the sources, the UN – and not Israel – will conduct negotiations with the Western countries involved in the deal.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the deal had been approved by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and accorded with international law. The new agreement, the office said, “will allow for a larger number of migrants to leave Israel than the previous plan, and under the auspices of the UN and the international community.”
According to the Prime Minister's Office, the new plan will be implemented in three phases over five years. Also, a special body will be established to improve living conditions in south Tel Aviv, where many asylum seekers live. Migrants who will be absorbed by Western countries will be allowed to work in Israel until they leave, while those who stay will be granted legal status, a visa and later on residency status.
The plan provides that the Israeli government will immediately grant all asylum seekers in the country the right to work, although they will not receive social welfare benefits. Haaretz has learned that the first stage of the plan, which is to be implemented immediately and last for a year and a half, will grant temporary resident status to all asylum seekers in Israel from the Darfur region of Sudan. The new plan eliminates individual asylum requests that Eritrean and Sudanese nationals have been submitting to the Israeli Interior Ministry. Instead the United Nations is to provide group status to all asylum seekers from these countries.
A group that seeks to halt the deportation of asylum seekers called Monday's news an achievement for which hundreds of thousands of Israelis could take credit for convincing the government to change its stance. "This agreement would not have happened without dozens of organizations and the contribution of many people," the group said, adding that Israel now had the opportunity to make amends with a responsible policy.
Shula Keshet, who helped found the movement South Tel Aviv Against Deportation, said the government now "won't be expelling our neighbors in south Tel Aviv to an unknown future."
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai also welcomed the new plan. “For years we have been demanding that the government take steps to ease the problem that was created in the past when it sent a large number of foreigners to Tel Aviv-Jaffa,” he said.
“A real improvement of the situation will only happen if the government meets the targets it has set regarding the number to be taken in by Western countries and the targets to be dispersed throughout Israel,” Huldai said, adding that city hall would be happy to help implement the plan.
A statement by Knesset members Michal Rozin and Mossi Raz of the left-wing Meretz party called the new plan "the finest hour and an undisputable success of the community of asylum seekers and Israeli society." Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay said: “After years of ignoring the problem, finally, a plan is emerging that recognizes the asylum seekers’ status, that provides a solution to rehabilitating the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv and also provides an orderly policy for labor migrants. The test will be in its implementation.”
A coalition of human rights organizations said the following in a joint statement: “It’s symbolic that on the Passover holiday, the holiday of freedom, we’ve been informed that Israel has taken the deportation plan off its agenda and will enable the asylum seekers to arrive in safe havens in safe countries,” the organizations said in a joint statement. “We will closely monitor the agreement that was signed to ensure that every asylum seeker receives [legal] status, rights and security, both in Israel and in other countries.”
The signatories included the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, the ASSAF Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights, Kav LaOved, Amnesty International Israel, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the African Refugee Development Center.
Several leading Jewish American groups congratulated the Israeli government for the new agreement, including the Union for Reform Judaism, and the New Israel Fund. Mickey Gitzin of the NIF called Monday a day of triumph for civil society groups and Israelis who had fought against the deportation.
Mark Hetfield, the director of HIAS, an organization initially founded to assist Jewish refugees fleeing Eastern Europe, commended the Israeli government "for making a responsible and legal choice that is consistent with Jewish values" and added: "The timing of this announcement, during Passover, could not have been more appropriate as these asylum seekers, like our ancestors, all crossed the Sinai in search of freedom.”
Not everyone was pleased, however. Members of Netanyahu's Likud party and other lawmakers were caught off guard by the plan, causing some of them to call for a renegotiation of the deal.
City Councilman Shlomo Maslawi, chairman of the Hatikva neighborhood committee in Tel Aviv, called the agreement a "disaster that will reverberate for generations and cause irreversible damage to the country."
He accused the government of failing to honor its pledge to include the residents of south Tel Aviv in the decision. "Their contempt for the residents screams to the skies," Maslawi said, adding that "we expect that the solution found for the roughly 16,000 infiltrators will also be found for the other infiltrators," using a common Israeli term for asylum seekers.
Sheffi Paz, a prominent opponent of the presence of asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, called the new plan a fait accompli and “a humiliation for Israel and a direct result of the total failure of a negligent policy over the years.”
She said she and her colleagues would no longer believe the government's assurances, adding that “the residents of south Tel Aviv will continue the fight until the last infiltrator leaves the neighborhood.”