African asylum seekers in Israel have voiced concern over Tel Aviv’s agreement with the UN to resettle half of them in Western countries.
A number of African migrants and asylum seekers told Al Jazeera they remain sceptical that the new plan could bring any real change for those who are to stay in Israel.
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On Monday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced that Israel had reached an unprecedented understanding with the United Nations to help resettle at least 16,250 African migrants in “developed countries like Canada, or Germany and Italy,” instead of Africa.
Hours after the announcement, Netanyahu said he would suspend the new plan, which was denounced by right-wingers in his government.
Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook post on Monday night that he was putting the agreement on hold until he meets with representatives from south Tel Aviv – where a large number of African asylum seekers live – along with Interior Minister Arye Dery.
Confusing matters further, both the German embassy in Israel and the Italian foreign ministry reported to the media that they were not aware of receiving any requests regarding asylum seekers.
Guess it's just one of those days. At 20:57 you congratulate #Israel & @refugees on their agreement, at 21:46 you like @IsraelMFA announcement on the deal, at 22:50 the PM suspends it and blames, among others, #EU (where #UNHCR hoped to resettle significant number of refugees).
— EU in Israel 🇪🇺🇮🇱 (@EUinIsrael) April 2, 2018
The new deal would allow those who stay in Israel, mainly women and children to be able to apply for asylum.
“As part of this agreement, they will all receive a visa so that they will be able to stay in Israel with a legal status and that is very important,” William Spindler, spokesperson for UNHCR told Al Jazeera following the announcement of the agreement.
“They will be able to apply for asylum if they are in fear of persecution in their countries of origin; their cases would need to be assessed.
“What we must remember is in the case of Eritreans for instance, a very high proportion of them are recognised as refugees in Europe, over 90 percent,” Spindler said.
“In the case of Sudanese, their proportion is also very high. So we think that most of these asylum seekers will qualify for refugee status.”
‘We’re still going to suffer’
Journalist David Sheen criticised the deal for merely postponing the expulsion of the remaining non-Jewish African refugees in Israel.
Responding to complaints from his far-right base, that even only having to postpone the expulsion, of only 16,000 non-Jewish African refugees, & for only 5 years, is still a capitulation, Netanyahu issues new vow to try to reduce even those 5 years to less https://t.co/3u7qZdN5uH pic.twitter.com/bCO9RWkvZP
— David Sheen (@davidsheen) April 2, 2018
“Just like the shady Rwanda & Uganda deals, this UN deal is no ‘victory’ for African refugees. 16,000 men will get chances at normal lives – which is more than they get in Israel – but the remaining 24,000 will have to start over with nothing in five years time,” Sheen wrote.
“And for the five years until those remaining refugees are forced out, they will lack the communal support of their resettled brethren, and become even more vulnerable targets for violent vigilante attacks, egged on by Israeli leaders. Reports of the ‘deal’ make no mention of any public campaign to reverse their racist incitement.”
Sheen’s concerns were echoed by many African asylum seekers.
“They are always changing their policies, so your happiness will only be for a short time,” said Helen Kidane, 27, just after the deal was announced, unknowingly foreshadowing Netanyahu’s revoked decision.
Kidane, who fled Eritrea in 2011 told Al Jazeera from Tel Aviv that lack of security and public services for African refugees remains unaddressed.
“We’re still scared; we don’t have any guarantees whether this [deal] will be implemented or not.
“They are making our lives miserable- financially and psychologically through their policies. Financially, they are taking 34 percent of salaries from refugees… but there has been no public service [available] to any refugee here since we arrived,” Kidane said, noting that her child was born in Israel but is still treated the same as other refugees.
Africans started fleeing to Israel in 2005 after word spread of safe refuge and job opportunity in Israel. Tens of thousands crossed the desert border before Israel completed the barrier at the Egyptian border in 2012 to curb the influx.
Fria, 32, whose name has been changed for fear of reprisal, fled Sudan after her family members were killed and escaped to Israel in 2011, crossing the desert alone by foot.
Living in Israel as an African refugee has been difficult due to prevalent racism; she has endured verbal abuse and Israelis have thrown things at her such as eggs and soft drinks.
Fria stressed that the deal reached with the UN allocates residency rights temporarily for only five years, after which they would face the same problem again. In the meantime, they continue to live in difficult conditions.
“All the families that live here, they don’t have good status… even those who were born here, they have no health insurance,” Fria said. “The government doesn’t provide [basic] things for children here. Families are facing a lot of problems.
“We don’t have the same health insurance as the Israelis. Even if we paid from [our own pocket], we won’t get good treatment. … If someone is sick and he went to the emergency, they will not treat him.”