The government is in contact with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in an attempt to reach a new agreement on the status and departure African asylum seekers in Israel, Interior Minister Arye Dery told the State Control Committee on Wednesday morning.
“The contacts with the UN [Refugee Agency] are continuing in an attempt to reach a new agreement,” said Dery. “The discussions with the UN have not ended, as of now there is no breakthrough.” The negotiations were restarted last week, said a source involved in the matter.
Dery said no reason exists to reopen the Holot detention facility in the Negev, which was closed in March. It will only be reopened if the law is changed and the detention of African refugees there is allowed legally. The government will continue to examine asylum requests and encourage asylum seekers to leave voluntarily by providing those who agree to leave with financial incentives, said Dery.
“Over the past four months, the requests of 8,000 asylum seekers have been dealt with,” he told the committee. In addition, 1,600 refugees whose requests were denied are now allowed to resubmit them because of delays in processing them, he added. The Population and Immigration Authority in the Interior Ministry has added 20 positions and opened a new facility in Bnei Brak to handle the asylum requests. As for the refugees from Darfur, Dery said a meeting will be held with Netanyahu on the issue in two weeks.
Committee chairwoman MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union) said: “It is impossible to ignore the elephant in the room: The hasty, unnecessary and unjustified cancellation of the prime minister’s agreement.” Yacimovich said the government reversed itself for irrelevant reasons and it is hard to understand why they have not gone back to the agreement. She urged the government to reinstate it and told Dery that from the tone of his voice, she understood that he too was not pleased with the cancellation of the agreement and he should convince Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reinstate it.
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The head of the union of the workers in the Interior Ministry’s unit that deals with enforcement and asylum seekers, Shani Shabatov, told the committee that the working conditions for the unit’s employees were unacceptable and the new facilities are nothing but trailer homes. “Thirty of our workers have been infected with tuberculosis, some workers have not had their wages paid for months,” she said. “[The ministry] is not sitting down to negotiate with us, the meetings have been cancelled. There is nowhere to receive people, physically. In other words, even if they add positions, there will not be anywhere to put the people,” Shabatov told the committee.
Last week, Channel 10 News reported that Israel was renewing negotiations with the UN’s refugee agency over a deal to find a solution for the African asylum seekers living in the country, but wanted to reduce the number of asylum seekers who are to remain in Israel as temporary residents – and to increase the numbers who leave for Western nations. Another change in the agreement Israel wants is to reduce the time period it will take for the asylum seekers to depart the country.
The UNHCR has informed Israel over the past few weeks that as far as the refugee agency is concerned the agreement, which was signed and then cancelled, is still open for discussion. In response, officials from Israel’s National Security Council have been in touch with the UNCHR on reaching an improved version agreement for Israel.
Last month, Dery and Netanyahu unveiled an agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, under which Western countries would take about half of the African asylum seekers and Israel would grant legal status to the rest. But after a harsh response form the right, Netanyahu scrapped the deal the next day.
Two weeks ago, the government informed the High Court of Justice that the plan to relocate African asylum seekers has fallen through and that there is currently no possibility to deport them against their will. The state told the court it will stop holding deportation hearings and all deportation orders issued so far will be cancelled. In addition, temporary residency permits will once again be renewed every sixty days.