By Maayan Lubell
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Monday it has scrapped a plan to deport African migrants to Africa and reached an agreement with the U.N. refugee agency to send more than 16,000 to Western countries instead.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Canada, Italy and Germany as some of the nations that will take in the migrants.
Other migrants, many of whom are seeking asylum, will be allowed to remain in Israel, which they entered illegally on foot through the border with Egypt, for at least the next five years.
The fate of some 37,000 Africans in Israel has posed a moral dilemma for a state founded as a haven for Jews from persecution and a national home. The right-wing government has been under pressure from its nationalist voter base to expel the migrants.
But the planned mass deportation led to legal challenges in Israel, drew criticism from the United Nations and rights groups and triggered an emotional public debate among Israelis.
In February, Israeli authorities started handing out notices to 20,000 male African migrants giving them two months to leave for a third country in Africa or risk being put in jail indefinitely.
Teklit Michael, who came to Israel from Eritrea a decade ago, said he was delighted by the new deal.
"I saw in the past few years a lot of people lose their hopes because of that deportation to an unsafe place," said Michael, 29.
MONEY AND AN AIR TICKET
The Israeli government has offered migrants, most of them from Sudan and Eritrea, $3,500 and a plane ticket to what it says is a safe destination. At immigration hearings, migrants were told they could choose to go to Rwanda or Uganda.
But rights groups advocating on their behalf say that many fled abuse and war and that their expulsion, even to a different country in Africa, would endanger them further.
The groups had challenged the deportation plan in Israel's High Court, which on March 15 issued a temporary order that froze its implementation.
Netanyahu said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had agreed to organize and fund the new plan that would take five years to implement.
"The joint commitment is that 'You take out 16,250 and we will leave 16,250 as temporary residents'. That enables the departure of a very large number of people, 6,000 in the first 18 months," Netanyahu said at a news conference in Jerusalem.
A UNHCR spokeswoman in Tel Aviv confirmed that an agreement had been reached but gave no details.
The U.N.'s refugee agency had urged Israel to reconsider its original plan, saying migrants who have relocated to sub-Saharan Africa in the past few years were unsafe and ended up on the perilous migrant trail to Europe, some suffering abuse, torture and even dying on the way.
The largest community of African migrants, about 15,000, lives in south Tel Aviv, in a poor neighborhood where shops are dotted with signs in Tigrinya and other African languages and abandoned warehouses have been converted into churches for the largely Christian Eritreans.
(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Hugh Lawson)