By Jaya Ramachandran
GENEVA | TEL AVIV (IDN) – UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is negotiating with Israel to resettle a portion of African asylum seekers in third countries deemed by the UN to be “safe,” perhaps including Western countries, in exchange for some of the refugees to be given permanent residency in Israel, according to The Times of Israel.
The aim is to halt Israel’s plans to deport thousands of asylum seekers to African countries, widely believed to be Rwanda and Uganda. “Such an arrangement could be realized, though the necessary details need to be worked out,” Sharon Harel, the external relations officer at the UNHCR office in Israel, told the newspaper.
She declined to name the countries interested in absorbing the refugees or what percentage of the refugees would be able to stay in Israel. Since 2013, the UNHCR, working with a number of different countries, has resettled 2,400 asylum seekers in third countries which they consider safe, including the U.S. and Canada.
Harel said she was confident that an agreement could offer a viable solution for the around 38,000 African asylum seekers currently in Israel. “We would see such an arrangement as a win-win for the refugees as well as the State of Israel,” said Harel.
The Prime Minister’s Office refused multiple requests for comment, writes Melanie Lidman, a freelance journalist contributing to The Times of Israel.
“Due to the secrecy surrounding this policy and the lack of transparency concerning its implementation, it has been very difficult for UNHCR to follow up and systematically monitor the situation of people relocated to these African countries,” the UNHCR said in a statement in November 2017.
“UNHCR, however, is concerned that these persons have not found adequate safety or a durable solution to their plight and that many have subsequently attempted dangerous onward movements within Africa or to Europe.”
Israel has deported approximately 4,000 asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda since December 2013, when the deportation program started.
A new law shuttering a holding facility and forcing asylum seekers to leave or go to jail saw Israel kick off a fresh deportation campaign early February. Israel began handing out deportation notices to asylum seekers renewing their two-month visa on February 4.
According to reports, writes Lidman, the government hopes to deport 600 asylum seekers per month for the first year. People with open asylum applications cannot be deported before the applications are resolved.
On February 5, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed international criticism of the handling of the asylum seeker situation as “a campaign of lies.”
“International law places obligations on countries and it also gives them rights. There is an obligation to accept refugees, and we accept refugees,” he said, “but international law also gives the right to a country to remove from its borders illegal migrants. We have no obligation to allow illegal labor migrants who are not refugees to remain here.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 11 February 2018]
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