Canada should welcome more African migrants from Israel, UN refugee agency says

Canada was tapped as a top destination country for African migrants ordered out of Israel under a deal that was struck, then abruptly suspended, between Israel and the UN's refugee agency Monday.

Israel to halt deportations if Western countries step up under deal that was struck, then suspended

Men and women from Eritrea and Sudan held silent protests to oppose Israel's plan to deport or detail thousands of migrants. Today Israel reached, then suspended, a deal with the UNHCR to resettle about 16,000 people in other countries. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Canada was tapped as a top destination country for African migrants ordered out of Israel under a deal that was struck, then abruptly suspended, between Israel and the UN's refugee agency Monday.

The UNHCR agreement with Israel would facilitate the departure of 16,250 Eritreans and Sudanese to other countries through sponsorship, resettlement, family reunification and labour migration, in exchange for a halt to Israel's "non-voluntary relocation policy."

A similar number would be given legal status.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said "developed" countries like Canada, Italy and Germany would be among those resettling the refugees.

But in a dramatic about-face just hours after the announcement, Netanyahu said in a Facebook post he was suspending the implementation of the agreement while he consults with his officials.

Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the UNHCR representative in Ottawa, called on Canada to open its door to more African migrants from Israel.​

Canada has not yet made any formal commitment, but "this is being discussed," Beuze said. In addition to increasing the number of privately sponsored spots, the government could also sponsor some vulnerable refugees such as LGBT or those with medical needs.

"Canada has an agreement with us to resettle (thousands) of people this year, so we could well imagine that a number of them could come out of Israel. But for the time being there is nothing I can tell you in terms of details with respect to the numbers or the time frame," he said.

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said the government reached an arrangement with Israeli authorities earlier this year to suspend the deportation or detention of people who had private sponsorship applications for Canada in the works.

As of Dec. 31, 2017, ‎there were 1,845 applications for private sponsorship in progress.

The spokesperson said to date, there has been no commitment to increase the number of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees coming from Israel, though talks with the UNHCR continue.

Rwanda a destination country

The Israel-UNHCR agreement came after Canada and other countries expressed concern with Israel's plan to deport or indefinitely detain thousands of asylum seekers. The Israeli government did not publicly name the country or countries to which the migrants were to be removed, but Rwanda was widely believed to be a destination country.

In his Facebook post today, Netanyahu said Rwanda had agreed to act as a third country, but recently "folded" due to pressure.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he was suspending an agreement with the UNHCR through a Facebook post. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

In February, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada does not support policies of "mass deportations of asylum seekers," and said Canada was in direct contact with the Israeli government to convey concerns.

Netanyahu had labelled the asylum seekers "illegal infiltrators," suggesting they were seeking job opportunities rather than genuine refugee protection.

The wave of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants began in 2006, with people fleeing persecution and violence crossing the border illegally from the Sinai desert to Israel. After Israel built a 242-kilometre electronic fence along the border in 2014, illegal immigration through the Sinai dropped to just 11 cases in 2016 and none in 2017.

Keep pressure on Israel

Enbal Singer, founder of Canadians Helping Asylum Seekers in Israel, has been pressing the federal government to remove some of the administrative barriers and take steps to facilitate private refugee sponsorship.

Singer said it will be important to ensure those who remain in Israel under the agreement aren't being ordered out down the road.

"I worry that without international pressure, Israel won't really uphold it's side of any agreement to give people status in Israel," she said. "If this really is a five-year plan, it is important that we all make sure that in three or four years the refugees are still receiving status and aren't being coerced to leave by the Israeli government."

Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Toronto-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said there is an urgent need to increase resources at the Canadian Embassy in Israel to speed up processing to bring more asylum seekers here, and that many groups and organizations stand ready to help.