“We are happy that there are many countries ready to welcome us and that Netanyahu has stopped the expulsions. We will no longer be sent back to Africa at the risk of life and will not be imprisoned in Israel,” said Michael Taklit, a refugee and Eritrean activist. “However, we’re only talking about the granting of residences and work permits and not of asylum recognition. One day Israel could change its mind and send us all away.”
We spoke with Taklit in the southern part of Tel Aviv, which has been known as “little Africa” for years. He explained his community’s state of mind now that there’s an agreement between Israel and the UN refugee agency that would see several countries, including Canada, Germany and Italy, would receive over the next five years African asylum seekers presently in Israel.
The refugees are relieved—and guarded. Sudanese represent 20 percent of the approximately 38,000 African asylum seekers whom the Israeli government in January had offered only two possibilities: return to Africa before April 1 or end up in prison.
“The confusion is understandable because nobody has a clear idea of the measures that the government will take to regularize the position of refugees. Asylum remains the goal of those who remain in Israel,” says Tamar, one of the Israeli activists who, together with intellectuals, writers, academics, Holocaust survivors and human rights centers, fought against the deportations of Africans to Rwanda and Uganda.
Another factor that pushed Netanyahu toward the agreement with the UN was the reversal of the governments in Kigali and Kampala, which had initially made their countries available to those expelled from Israel. Germany and Italy also seemed to take a step backwards, and on Monday night they said they did not receive any request from Israel or the UN to welcome the refugees.
“There is no agreement with Italy in the framework of the bilateral pact between Israel and UNHCR for the relocation, over five years, of the migrants who go into Israel from Africa and that Israel has pledged not to reject,” officials from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have announced.
First La Lega’s Calderoli and Forza’s Gasparri intervened. The former was very clear: “We will not even talk about taking a share of 16,000 illegal immigrants that Israel is about to expel from its territory. … As soon as the new government takes office it will send them back to their home, repatriating them, all the illegal immigrants.”
The latter, premising that he is always on the side of Israel, said he was “dismayed” when he discovered that the agreement also involves Italy. “We must oppose this and also ask that others take refugees who have landed in Italy. The Parliament immediately says no,” added Gasparri, highlighting what happened in Bardonecchia, which he said would have “laid bare the catastrophe of Italy’s porous borders, a paradise for illegal immigrants that our neighbors do not want.”
Netanyahu, however, knows his stuff. During the press conference with Interior Minister Arie Deri, he said that over 16,000 Sudanese and Eritreans will go to Western countries (6,000 the first year) while the other 16,000 will remain in Israel as “permanent residents.” They will get work visas and will be sent to locations “where they can be useful.”
“We will decide where they will live and where they will work,” added Deri, confirming that the refugees will be taken to various areas of Israel, probably the southern ones, and removed from the poor neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, as the government promised. Netanyahu, to temper the disappointment of those who asked for the deportation of all “illegal immigrants,” has prepared a plan for the development and rehabilitation of the southern suburbs of Tel Aviv, which, instigated by the most radical right wing, has been raised on several occasions against the presence of thousands of Africans.
All the details of the agreement with UNHCR were not known as of Monday night. But from what was known, it will probably be single Eritreans who will have to leave Israel for Europe and North America.
Israel is among the countries that recognizes the fewest number of political asylum seekers. Netanyahu has always denied that Eritreans and Sudanese have sought refuge in Israel to escape from war or to escape oppressive regimes. To his government, they are migrants looking for work and who, by their presence, threaten the Jewish character of the country. The Supreme Court, which froze deportations last month, was hindering the prime minister’s plans.