African asylum seekers and Israeli activists protest outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, against their deportation, on April 3, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
The Israeli government announced on Wednesday that it will immediately release 58 African asylum seekers currently held in a detention facility in southern Israel after a controversial plan to deport the migrants to Rwanda fell apart.
The detained migrants were released later on Wednesday evening.
The state decision was announced in a response to a High Court petition filed on behalf of a slew of human rights organizations who argued the continued imprisonment of the asylum seekers was illegal.
The remaining 212 asylum seekers held in Saharonim Prison will remain in detention for now as the state is still in talks with an unnamed country — widely believed to be Uganda — to forcibly deport them there.
However, the state informed the court it will free the remaining Saharonim detainees if that agreement similarly collapses. That deal is also believed to be imperiled as Uganda said Tuesday it will not accept asylum seekers from the Jewish state.
Following a swarm of rumors, the East African country’s Foreign Affairs Minister Henry Okello Oryem on Tuesday denied the existence of an agreement with Israel on the issue.
“We will insist that the airlines return them (the asylum seekers) to the country where they came from,” he said in a statement. “We do not have a contract, any understanding, formal or informal, with Israel for them to dump their refugees here.”
African migrants march from Holot detention center to the Saharonim Prison in southern Israel, on February 22, 2018. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)
Eitay Mack, the attorney who filed the High Court petition on behalf of the rights groups, told The Times of Israel that he expected the deal with Uganda to break down, similar to the previous one with Rwanda, leaving the government with no choice but to release the remaining asylum seekers at Saharonim.
Last-ditch effort to salvage Uganda ‘deal’
Nevertheless, Israel is still trying to save the agreement. In its Wednesday response to the High Court petition, it stated that a special envoy was dispatched to the unnamed “third-party country” that had agreed to accept African asylum seekers from Israel.
The unnamed country was Uganda, according to Hebrew media reports.
The special envoy is expected to report back if the agreement with the country still stands, according to the state response.
The state said the special envoy would confirm whether the country is suitable for deportations “in light of the allegations” made against it, apparently referring to human rights violations or dangers posed to migrants who are deported there.
Asylum seekers previously deported to Uganda and Rwanda have told The Times of Israel they faced serious danger and even imprisonment after arriving in Africa without proper documents.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, February 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will have until Thursday to decide whether the state’s response is sufficient to allow Israel to continue imprisoning the remaining 212 African asylum seekers in Saharonim.
“If the attorney general is not convinced that he has before him everything that is necessary to start an involuntary deportation to this second third-party country, the detainees will be released from custody,” the state’s response said.
The state response followed a dramatic about-face late Monday evening in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he was canceling a new agreement with the UN’s refugee agency that would have seen thousands of African migrants resettled in Western nations and thousands more given temporary status in Israel. The prime minister had frozen the deal mere hours after announcing the plan.
“Every year I make thousands of decisions benefiting the State of Israel and Israeli citizens. Occasionally a decision is reached that has to be reconsidered,” he said Tuesday at a meeting with anti-migrant activists from south Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants reside.
The agreement was designed to end the possibility of forced deportations of thousands of migrants from Israel to Rwanda. Under the agreement, a minimum of 16,250 migrants would have instead been resettled in Western nations.
In return, Israel would grant temporary residency to an equal number of migrants.
African asylum seekers set up a mock slave auction as part of a protest against their deportation outside the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv on April 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The presence of the primarily Sudanese and Eritrean migrants in Israel has become a key political issue.
Israel’s earlier deportation policy to the African countries, which offered each migrant $3,500 and a plane ticket, had been condemned by Israeli activists and the United Nations as chaotic, poorly executed and unsafe.
The Supreme Court froze the deportations in mid-March in response to a petition.