Geneva, April 3 (IANS/AKI) United Nations refugee agency UNHCR on Tuesday expressed “regret” at Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s cancellation of a bilateral plan to resettle over 16,000 African migrants in western countries and allow the same number to stay in Israel.
“It is with regret that UNHCR notes today’s cancellation by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Israel-UNHCR Agreement of 2nd April on solutions for Eritreans and Sudanese currently in Israel,” read the statement.
Following pressure from his party and from coalition hardliners, Netanyahu said Tuesday he was suspending the accord signed a day earlier with UNHCR to resettle at least 16,000 mainly Eritrean and Sudanese migrants over a period of five years and allow the same number to remain in Israel.
“The Agreement was the result of discussions over an extended period of time, and reflected a shared effort to find a solution that gave international protection to people arriving in Israel fleeing war or persecution while also meeting the concerns of Israeli host communities,” UNHCR said.
“We encourage the government of Israel to consider the matter further, while standing ready to be of help,” it added.
The bilateral accord included various programmes, including sponsorship, resettlement, family reunion and labour migration schemes. It also offered”suitable legal status” in Israel to the African migrants allowed to remain.
UNHCR said the accord also included plans to design programmes to encourage Eritrean and Sudanese migrants to move away from working-class neighbourhoods in South Tel Aviv where they have mostly congregated, sparking tensions with local Israelis
Vocational training was also planned for the migrants/asylum-seekers for jobs in solar energy, agriculture and irrigation for employment abroad or in Israel under the accord, UNHCR said.
Announcing the accord on TV on Monday, Netanyahu said the western countries where the African migrants would be resettled included Italy, Germany and Canada.
Italy and Germany said they had not been involved in the UNHCR-Israel pact.
Most of the migrants from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea – which has one of the world’s worst human rights records – say they are asylum-seekers fleeing danger and persecution, while Israeli leaders say they are just looking for work.
According to Israels’ Population, Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA), there were some 26,600 Eritreans and 7,600 Sudanese in Israel by the end of 2017.
Earlier plans to send the African migrants to a third country – reportedly Uganda or Rwanda – fell through after they drew sharp criticism from the UNHCR as well as from some Israelis and rights activists.