By Cristina Maza*
Israel has scrapped a controversial plan to forcibly deport African migrants back to Africa— and struck an agreement with the United Nations to send the asylum seekers to Western countries instead.
The news comes after African refugees and human rights defenders staged weeks of protests, arguing that migrants sent back to Africa could face violence or other abuses. The agreement announced Monday will send 16,000 African asylum seekers to Western countries such as Canada, Italy and Germany.
The U.N. refugee agency estimates that there are around 38,000 African asylum seekers currently in Israel, the majority of whom are from Eritrea and Sudan. Asylum seekers who are not relocated to Western countries will be permitted to stay in Israel for the next five years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.
The announcement is a significant departure from the policies Netanyahu had touted just a month ago. Israel had told thousands of African migrants in February that they had to leave the country by April or they would be sent to prison. Israeli officials had said they would give migrants around $3,500 each to leave, either to their home country or to a third country in Africa like Uganda or Rwanda.
Netanyahu’s right-wing government had also dubbed the migrants “infiltrators” and argued that they were economic migrants seeking better opportunities instead of genuine refugees fleeing violence and persecution.
Some experts say that Netanyahu was pressured by far-right elements in his coalition government to expel the migrants in order to maintain the Jewish character of Israel. Demographics have been a point of contention in Israel since its founding, and some extremist elements advocate for non-Jews to be expelled from the country.
Human rights groups, however, challenged the government’s deportation plans in court. On March 15, Israel’s High Court issued a temporary ban on the deportation plan. Experts say that Monday’s announcement proves that civil society can make a difference when it comes to shifting public policy.
“Policy shifts like this can be surprising when they happen, but they underscore a key lesson. Pressure from civil society can make a difference,” Martin Edwards, a diplomacy expert at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, told Newsweek. “Elected governments want to avoid looking bad as much as possible, and the optics of this were not favorable for the Netanyahu government. It’s a good lesson for activists around the world to learn: pressure can make a difference.”