Accept the Refugee Deal

Eritrean migrants a demonstration against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers from Israel, outside the Knesset, in Jerusalem, January 17, 2018.
Oded Balilty/AP

Damtew Dessalegne, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative in Israel, has urged Israel to reconsider the agreement on asylum seekers that was signed, but immediately canceled, about 18 months ago. As far as the United Nations is concerned, he said, the agreement is still on the table, and it was and remains “the best way to progress” (Lee Yaron, Tuesday’s Haaretz).

Last week, the first Global Refugee Forum took place in Geneva. Israel was represented by Foreign Ministry personnel and an official from the Population, Immigration and Border Authority. Yet despite this official delegation, it’s hard to say that Israel has participated in bearing the burden that countries around the world have borne for the past decade, as the number of refugees and people with no legal status has approached an all-time high. The goal of the conference was to bolster international support for the refugees and promote their absorption by other countries until they can safely return to their own lands. But that’s exactly what Israel refuses to do.

According to Population Authority data, some 29,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan are living in Israel. Even though they have been in Israel for about a decade, and in some cases even longer, the asylum requests they submitted haven’t yet been considered, despite criticism of this policy from the state comptroller and the Supreme Court. Dessalegne described the refugees in Israel as living in “legal and social limbo” and urged the country to find a “viable and humane solution ... that offers them protection, but also takes into account Israel’s demographic concerns and other interests.”

To Israel’s shame, last year, it rejected a solution that satisfied both demands. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who supported the agreement that his government signed with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, subsequently withdrew from it because he couldn’t stand up to his own base, which opposed it. Under this agreement, some 16,000 asylum seekers would have left Israel and been taken in by Western countries such as Canada, Germany and Italy, while a similar number of people would have been granted legal status in Israel.

Netanyahu’s supporters couldn’t bear the thought that even a tiny number of refugees would be absorbed in the Jewish nation-state, while Netanyahu couldn’t withstand the protests the agreement sparked. The price of his weak leadership was paid not only by the refugees, but also by residents of south Tel Aviv, since the agreement would have provided a solution to their woes as well.

What was true last year is still true today. This is a good agreement, one of the most generous that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has ever offered any country. Israel must take advantage of the fact that the agreement is still on the table and adopt it immediately. This is the least it can do to contribute its share to the global effort and help the asylum seekers.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.