OTTAWA — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suspended an agreement with the United Nations that could have seen Canada become a new home for a number of African asylum seekers being turned away by Israel.
Netanyahu revealed the sudden change in a Facebook post only hours after Israel announced it would scrap its plan to deport thousands of migrants and refugees — mainly from Eritrea and Sudan — after reaching a deal with the UN to send more than 16,000 of them to other countries.
Canada had been one of the countries expected to resettle some of the asylum seekers, but it remained to be seen whether the Liberal government would increase the number of refugees from the area who were already destined to arrive here.
The agreement between Israel and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees would have removed the threat of forced expulsion of about 39,000 people to an unidentified African destination, widely believed to be Rwanda.
The mass deportation was set to begin April 1, but Netanyahu said Monday the plan was called off when it became clear the intended country would not be able to handle absorbing the deported population.
Now, Netanyahu said he will consult further on the plan.
Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the UN refugee agency's representative in Canada, said he had no comment on the news that Netanyahu had changed his mind.
Earlier Monday, he said discussions were ongoing with countries that could resettle asylum seekers.
It remained unclear whether the news from Israel would have meant Canada would be welcoming a higher number of refugees than originally planned.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said Canada is currently focusing its efforts on clearing the backlog of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees in Israel who are already expected to be resettled here through the private sponsorship program.
"That's our focus at the moment," Hursh Jaswal said Monday.
There were 1,845 applications in process as of Dec. 31.
He noted that in February, the federal government reached a deal with Israel not to deport or detain any asylum seekers whose applications to be resettled in Canada through the private sponsorship of refugees program are making their way through the system.
He said Ottawa also increased its resources to processing those applications through its office in Tel Aviv.
"We continue to engage with private sponsors in Canada whose applications may be affected by this situation," Jaswal added in an emailed statement.
The Tel Aviv office will be giving letters to all those who ask for confirmation that their applications are in process, which Jaswal said can be shown to Israeli authorities if needed.
The Canadian government has also committed to bring in 4,000 Eritrean government-assisted refugees by the end of this year.
Progress has been slow, according to a document obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act.
As of Sept. 4, 2017, Canada had received 1,805 of those refugees — only 45 per cent of the promised amount — since 2014.
Jaswal said the federal government still plans to meet its goal.
— With files from The Associated Press
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