Netanyahu didn’t even make it 24 hours before scrapping U.N. agreement to resettle African refugees

Israeli PM has once again put the fate of roughly 35,000 people in limbo to appease his far-right base.

African migrants hold signs reading in Hebrew "You come from the Bible, you too are refugees", during a demonstration in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on February 24, 2018, against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda. CREDIT: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images.
African migrants hold signs reading in Hebrew "You come from the Bible, you too are refugees", during a demonstration in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on February 24, 2018, against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda. CREDIT: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images.

Less than 24 hours after he’d made a deal with the United Nations to send over 16,000 African migrants to be resettled in Western countries, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed away from the agreement.

He did so not because he came to think that Israel should be a country that welcomes refugees, but because his far-right base became enraged over an equal number of migrants that would get to remain in Israel under the terms of the deal.

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In a tweet (linked to a slightly longer Facebook post) on Tuesday, Netanyahu said that he will “continue to act with determination to make all the options available to infiltrators.”

Just hours before, he’d touted the benefits of the deal, saying “This agreement will allow for the departure from Israel of 16,250 migrants to developed countries like Canada or Germany or Italy.”

Israel’s treatment of the migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, has been criticized by human rights and migrants rights organizations for years. The U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) immediately issued a statement urging Netanyahu to reconsider tearing up the deal.

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This seems unlikely at a time when the prime minister is facing a serious existential challenge after being the subject of a criminal investigation.

Netanyahu has been been trying a variety of approaches to containing and deporting the migrants and asylum seekers. He’s tried keeping them in isolated detention camps, asked them to deport themselves (to any African country, really — or face jail), and tried forced deportations.

The deportation notices sent out in February indicated that people would be deported to an unnamed African country that “has developed tremendously over the last decade and has absorbed thousands of returning residents as well as migrants from various African countries.”

Gerry Simpson, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program told ThinkProgress that with this deal scrapped, the options are grim.

“There are two options: One, round them up and deport them…or coerce them out. And they’ve tried every option in their rule book for coercion,” said Simpson.

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Some of the tactics he said Israel has already imposed on asylum seekers include: Insecure legal status, threatening indefinite detention, reducing health care access, docking 20 percent of their wages, freezing their wages, and denying them access to asylum procedures.

The transfer deal might not be perfect, but, he said, as long as UNHCR guidelines are followed, the transfer of asylum seekerd is not illegal (as under the UNHCR-Israel agreement) so long as they are not transferred to a place that would either be dangerous or from which they might be sent to a dangerous place (as under previous Israeli attempts).

“The only grounds on which we’d object to this agreement is that it potentially sets a precedent for rich countries to avoid the responsibility of looking after asylum seekers as soon as possible, effectively, and with dignity, and instead turning them into bargaining chips that could be used, say, in trade deals or other such situations,” said Simpson.

One of the countries mentioned by Nentanyahu, Italy, has reportedly been paying Libyan militias to turn boats carrying African asylum seekers away. So agreeing to take a few thousand from Israel — something Italy has yet to confirm — would suggest that “Italy is receiving some benefit, in exchange, from Israel. Why else would Italy agree to this?” wondered Simpson.

But Netanyahu’s scrapping of the deal is largely consistent with the global picture of how many wealthy governments are treating migrants and asylum seekers. Consider the hysteria surrounding a caravan of people (more of an annual march than anything, organized by People Without Borders ) heading toward the U.S. border in hopes of being able to apply for asylum.

“If you’re looking at it from the perspective of a government that is trying to avoid looking after asylum seekers and refugees, they’ve definitely been learning their lessons. They’re becoming more savvy on how to avoid receiving those people at their border in the first place, and secondly, if they manage to reach their borders, in managing to make their lives as miserable as possible so that they leave,” said Simpson.

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“Governments are not shamed by the results of these policies…and there’s a relatively straightforward reason for that, which is vote-winning,” he said.