UN Refugee Envoy in Israel: Nixed Asylum Seekers Deal Still on the Table

UNHCR rep says Israel must find a viable and humane solution to protect the nearly 30,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, which some Israeli authorities have described as 'illegal migrants' and 'infiltrators'

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Children of asylum seekers and migrants march in south Tel Aviv's Purim parade, March 19, 2019.
Children of asylum seekers and migrants march in south Tel Aviv's Purim parade, March 19, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

The representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel has called on Israel to reconsider the agreement on asylum seekers that it signed in April 2018 and canceled the next day.

In an interview with Haaretz on the sidelines of the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva, Damtew Dessalegne criticized Israeli policy on asylum seekers and called on the government to advance a solution. He stressed that the United Nations still considered the canceled agreement “the best way to progress.”

In April 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed an agreement with the UN refugee agency, under which 16,250 asylum seekers would be resettled in Western countries and an equal number would receive residency status in Israel. The deal would have superseded a plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda. But one day later, Netanyahu canceled the deal under pressure from coalition partners.

“According to official statistics, less than 30,000 Eritreans and Sudanese remain in Israel,” Dessalegne told Haaretz. “They find themselves in a legal and social limbo for over a decade. A viable and humane solution must be found that offers them protection, but also takes into account Israel’s demographic concerns and other interests.”

For this to happen, he said, Israel must do more; other countries are willing to help. “It is on this premise that UNHCR proposed to the government what we called a comprehensive solutions strategy,” he said, adding that the agreement the UN proposed “remains the best way forward. It is a win-win strategy that would benefit both the government and the people in need of and deserving protection. Given the right environment and the right support, these refugees are capable of not only rebuilding their lives, but contributing meaningfully to their host society economically, socially and culturally.”

Dessalegne was critical of Israeli authorities’ referring to asylum seekers as “illegal migrants” or “infiltrators,” despite granting them temporary residency and recognizing that deporting them to their home countries could endanger them.

“There should be no illusion that the Eritreans and Darfuris who fled to Israel over the years were moving voluntarily, in search of a better life. It is not right, legally and morally, to label these people as ‘illegal migrants’ – or worse, as ‘infiltrators’ – and avoid the ‘refugee’ terminology altogether, and the rights and obligations that it implies,” he said.

“The politicians started calling them infiltrators; the media referred to them as infiltrators; and – reasonably enough in the circumstances – the public began thinking they were infiltrators. [This is] a very troubling use of language to describe refugees. What the discussions, pledges and commitments made at the Global Refugee Forum clearly demonstrate is that refugees and asylum-seekers are not the problem, but rather the causes that forced them out of their homes and communities and the inadequacies and sometimes complete lack of appropriate responses in conformity with international law standards.”

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