Barely a day after he announced the decision of his government, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cancelled an agreement with the UN to resettle some 16,000 African asylum seekers in Western countries and an equal amount in Israel, less than 24 hours after he announced the deal as “unprecedented.”
“I listened attentively to many comments on the agreement,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “As a result, and after re-evaluating the balance of advantages and drawbacks, I decided to cancel the agreement.”
Anti-immigrant groups and politicians in Netanyahu’s own party had criticized the agreement, with one leading politician saying it would create a “paradise for infiltrators.”
The stated plan would have ended over a decade of uncertainty for most asylum seekers in Israel, as the government has increasingly pressured migrants to leave the country through detention and wage deductions.
“Despite the difficult legal and international restrictions, which are growing, we will continue to work with determination to exhaust all options available to us to remove infiltrators,” Netanyahu said.
“At the same time we will seek additional solutions.”
In the early and mid-2000s, asylum seekers mostly from Sudan and Eritrea crossed through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula into Israel.
There are now around 37,000 asylum seekers in Israel and a few thousand children of asylum seekers, according to government figures and estimates.
“We hope Israel will reconsider soon,” said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, adding that it had been a “win-win agreement.”
Netanyahu previously said that he reached an agreement with a third country to forcibly deport the entire population of asylum seekers.
On Monday, he said that the country – later acknowledged to be Rwanda – had backtracked in the face of political and legal pressure, meaning a deal with the UN was his only option.
Rwandan officials have repeatedly denied an agreement to accept forcibly deported migrants from Israel.
Tens of thousands of Israelis and asylum seekers have protested Netanyahu’s forced deportation plan, and on Monday had applauded the UN agreement and celebrated a major victory.
On Tuesday, however, activists took to the streets of Tel Aviv once again holding signs saying “Stop the deportations!”