Israel Agrees to, Then Walks Back, Agreement to Resettle Refugees from Eritrea and Sudan

The Israeli government has faced considerable international criticism of late following its agreement to and subsequent freezing of a plan to resettle thousands of migrants from African nations living illegally within the country.

Background and Developments

Many of the nearly 37,000 migrants facing resettlement come from conflicted regions of Africa, including Eritrea and Sudan. Though they are living illegally in Israel, they are nonetheless fleeing violence, conflict, and persecution in their home countries.

Plans to deport or resettle have been discussed as far back as 2012, but it wasn’t until early 2018 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proceeded with the deportation order.

In response, the UN and various member countries pushed for an agreement to help resettle 16,250 Eritreans and Sudanese through sponsorships, family reunification plans, and labour migration on the condition that Israel halts its “non-voluntary relocation policy.” A similar number of migrants would remain within Israel under legal status.

Though Netanyahu publicly agreed to this plan, mere hours after its announcement, he announced he was immediately suspending the agreement.

Many right-wing Israelis oppose the agreement as it would allow thousands of migrants to resettle in Israel. The chief arguments against this settlement pertain to increased crime rates in neighbourhoods with large migrant populations (though some police reports show that several crime rates are on the decline), and a sense that these migrants erode Israeli national identity.

Partner Countries Still in the Dark

Complicating matters further, some of the resettlement countries named by Netanyahu claim they were not aware of the agreement in the first place. Canada, for instance, was named, though no official agreement existed. Both countries had, however, arranged to suspend the detention or deportation of those who have private sponsorship applications with Canada in progress. Italy, meanwhile, issued a statement denying the existence of any arrangement with Israel.

In addition, Canada has a pre-existing commitment with the UNHCR to resettle 10,000 refugees in 2018, as well as many private sponsors helping to resettle Eritrean and Sudanese refugees from Israel.

Refugee advocates are calling on the Canadian Government to improve the private refugee sponsorship program for these asylum seekers. One suggestion is to give more resources to the Canadian Embassy in Israel to help speed up the processing of applications. There are concerns that Netanyahu may not hold up his end of the UN agreement, and deport or detain these refugees in the future.

In 2006, a wave of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan crossed Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula Desert, fleeing violence and persecution. Netanyahu described these migrants as “illegal infiltrators” who are trying to immigrate illegally for job opportunities. As a result, in 2014, Israel built an electric fence along the border of Israel and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.

The 242-kilometre electric fence slowed down and eventually stopped asylum seekers from crossing the border. But those who made it across are now unwelcome in Israel and face very uncertain futures.