GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency says it regrets Israel’s decision to cancel an agreement to resettle thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, but remains hopeful that a solution still can be found.
There are about 39,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, most of them living in poor neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.
On Monday, Israel and the U.N. refugee agency announced an agreement to send some of the refugees to Western countries while allowing others to remain in Israel under temporary visas and find jobs.
This elicited a howl of protest from right-wing allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who consider the Africans illegal immigrants. Netanyahu canceled the agreement the next day.
Earlier, Israel said it would give the refugees a choice: accept relocation to African countries or face extended time in jail. Several NGOs opposed to that took their case to Israel’s Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the refugees and froze the policy.
What happens next, said U.N. refugee agency spokesman William Spindler, is up in the air.
“So, we are back to square one, if you like. And, the controversial policy of sending these people to countries in Africa has been frozen by the High Court in Israel and the countries that were supposed to take them have denied that they are part of this agreement,” he said.
Spindler said the UNHCR's offer to work with the Israeli government still stands.
He said the agreement canceled this week would provide a solution for the Africans who are in need of protection from war and persecution. At the same time, he says it would meet the concerns of the local Israeli communities hosting them.
Spindler said the policy of sending refugees to Africa -- reportedly to Uganda and Rwanda -- was widely criticized because it was not in the best interest of the refugees.
“Once the refugees arrived there, they find very little possibility to integrate. Many of them do not feel safe there and then they continue long dangerous routes, risking their lives, once again, because many of them went through terrible ordeals before they arrived in Israel. So, once again they will be on the move," he said.
However, Spindler said the current situation is not tenable and ultimately Israel and the UNHCR must find a way out of this impasse.