Israel courts East Africa states to resolve its migrant crisis
- Tel Aviv says it has dropped its months-long plans to expel thousands of migrants who cross into the country through Egypt’s Sinai desert.
- The move is said to have been taken after Uganda, which had indicated a willingness to take in 500 of them, “took too long” in acceding to Tel Aviv’s request.
- Zambia and two other African countries are on Israel’s radar in its new plan for voluntary deportations.
By ALLAN OLINGO
Israel has abandoned a plan to forcibly deport African migrants, after failing to immediately find a willing country to take them in.
In a Supreme Court filing on Tuesday, Tel Aviv said it had dropped its months-long plans to expel thousands of mostly Eritrean and Sudanese migrants who cross into the country through Egypt’s Sinai desert.
This move is said to have been taken after Uganda, which had indicated a willingness to take in 500 of them, “took too long” in acceding to Tel Aviv’s request.
“At this stage, the possibility of carrying out an unwilling deportation to a third country is not on the agenda,” the government wrote in a response to the Supreme Court, which has been hearing the case.
Israel said that it would stop holding pre-deportation hearings for the asylum seekers, effectively nullifying any previous decisions on the matter. But, in what seems to be a flurry of shuttle diplomacy, top Israeli government officials have recently visited East Africa, with President Reuven Rivlin set to arrive in Ethiopia on Labour Day, giving credence to speculation that Tel Aviv is looking for new homes for the African migrants.
Mr Rivlin is expected to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and address a business conference, which will be attended by leading Ethiopian and Israeli executives.
Mr Rivlin will be the third high-ranking official from Tel Aviv to visit the region in a month, in the footsteps of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
This week, Ms Shaked was in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya, with speculation high that Israel is making overtures to the countries to get fresh commitments, possibly on a voluntary immigration policy. Mr Lieberman visited Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia at the end of March.
The EastAfrican understands that Zambia and two other African countries are on Israel’s radar in its new plan for voluntary deportations.
Of interest is the justice minister’s agenda in the region, outside the trade and investment talks she held with the three countries’ leaders.
She held meetings with Tanzania’s Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs Palamagamba Kabudi while in Ethiopia she met with senior government officials. In Kenya, she met with Deputy President William Ruto.
In Tanzania, she led a delegation of 50 business people and diplomats with the discussions revolving around technological co-operation for development of agriculture and manufacturing industries.
While in Kenya, she announced that the two countries will resume direct flights next year.
The direct flights were initially set to begin in August 2016, but were delayed because Israeli airline Arkia lacked a plane to deploy on the route it had stopped plying in 2003, according to the Israeli embassy. Its destinations in Africa are Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar.
Two weeks ago, Uganda confirmed that it was considering Israeli’s request to take in African migrants, confirming that it had received Israel’s official request.
This was the first time Kampala acknowledged it was in talks on such a deal with Israel after constantly denying it.
More than 4,000 migrants have left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda since 2013 under a voluntary programme but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu administration has come in for heavy criticism over his plan to expel more than 32,000 immigrants from his country.
Uganda’s Minister of State for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees Musa Ecweru said that Kampala was “positively considering” the request from Israel to take in 500 migrants from Eritrea and Sudan.
“The state of Israel working with other refugees’ managing organisations has requested Uganda to allow about 500 Eritreans and Sudanese to relocate to Uganda. The government and ministry are positively considering the request,” Mr Ecweru said.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, facing opposition from NGOs, has backed down on forcible eviction and said that Israel will instead reopen the detention facilities it established for asylum seekers.
The migrants will now be allowed to renew their residency permits every 60 days, as they were before the beginning of the deportation push.
“Israel will continue to act on the issue of the infiltrators, including attempts to encourage them to leave on their own accord or relocating them involuntarily, in accordance with the law.
“Israel’s immigration officials will continue to refer infiltrators to the ‘voluntary departure’ office, allowing them to relocate to a third country, but without conditioning the renewal of their legal status on their willingness to leave to a third country,” the government said in in its filing with the Supreme Court earlier this week.
Despite this apparent retreat, Israel’s immigration authorities are still bent on deporting the migrants voluntarily, a plan rights group Amnesty International has criticised.
Now all eyes are on Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia, after Tuesday’s decision to shelve the forced deportations and a change of tack by the Netanyahu administration.