Israel’s Netanyahu scraps African migrant relocation deal with U.N.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday he was cancelling an agreement with the U.N. refugee agency to relocate thousands of African migrants, bowing to right-wing pressure to scrap the deal.

The agency, the UNHCR, said it hoped Israel would reconsider the decision soon and offered to work with it to identify and “respond to the protection needs” of asylum seekers in the country.

Netanyahu’s critics seized on his backtracking on the arrangement – under which thousands of other migrants would have won the right to remain in Israel – as a sign of political weakness. The prime minister is the subject of police investigations into suspected corruption, which he denies, in the greatest challenges to his career yet.

African migrants and Israeli activists demonstrate in support of the new agreement with the U.N. refugee agency to relocate thousands of African migrants, outside Israeli Prime Minister office in Jerusalem April 3, 2018. The placard in Hebrew reads "Not Playing with Human Life, Yes to the deal". REUTERS/Ammar Awad

African migrants and Israeli activists demonstrate in support of the new agreement with the U.N. refugee agency to relocate thousands of African migrants, outside Israeli Prime Minister office in Jerusalem April 3, 2018. The placard in Hebrew reads “Not Playing with Human Life, Yes to the deal”. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

For the estimated 37,000 African migrants in Israel, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan, a whirlwind of announcements about their future has swept their status even deeper into limbo.

Outside a government complex in Tel Aviv where Netanyahu said he was scrapping the deal, several African men wrapped themselves in chains in a protest that put their sense of powerlessness on display.

On Monday Netanyahu announced live on television an arrangement with the UNHCR that would have relocated about 16,250 migrants to Western countries.

But the fact that thousands more would be allowed to stay raised an outcry from right-wing politicians and on social media from Netanyahu’s nationalist voter base, which wants the migrants expelled. He then posted on Facebook he was putting the agreement’s implementation on hold.

By Tuesday, the deal was dead.

“I have listened carefully to the many comments on the agreement. As a result, and after I again weighed the advantages and disadvantages, I decided to cancel the deal,” a statement from the prime minister’s office quoted Netanyahu as saying.

He made the remarks at a meeting with representatives of residents of south Tel Aviv, a poor area that has attracted the largest migrant community and where many of its inhabitants want the Africans out.

The fate of migrants who entered Israel illegally by trekking across a desert border with Egypt, has posed a moral dilemma for a state founded as a haven for Jews from persecution and a national home.

In a joint statement, Israeli human rights groups condemned the decision to cancel the agreement, accusing Netanyahu of playing “political games”. The groups said Israel is capable of absorbing all of the migrants, describing them as “asylum-seekers who came knocking on its door”.

Before announcing the deal, Israel had been moving ahead with plans to deport many of the Africans to Rwanda. But the Supreme Court intervened, freezing such deportations in March, and Netanyahu said Rwanda had buckled to international pressure and reneged on the deal.

“Despite legal restraints and international difficulties that are piling up, we will continue to act with determination to explore all of the options at our disposal to remove the infiltrators,” Netanyahu said in his statement on Tuesday.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; editing by David Stamp)

Austria says wants exemption from EU migrant relocation system

Migrants wait to cross the border from Slovenia into Spielfeld in Austria, February 16, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria will seek an exemption from having to accept more asylum-seekers under an EU relocation system, it said on Tuesday, arguing that it has already taken in its fair share during Europe’s migration crisis.

The move is a new blow to the system that would cover only a fraction of migrant arrivals to the European Union and that has barely been implemented because of opposition led by Eastern European countries including Poland and Hungary.

It also coincides with a tightening of security and immigration rules by the centrist coalition government in Austria, where a wave of arrivals that began in 2015 helped fuel a rise in support for the far-right Freedom Party, which still leads in opinion polls.

“We believe an exception is necessary for Austria for having already fulfilled its obligation. We will discuss that with the European Commission,” Chancellor Christian Kern told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting. “We will send a letter as quickly as possible and then begin discussions.”

Fewer than 14,500 asylum-seekers have been relocated from Greece and Italy, the first EU countries that many refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa set foot in, under the two-year EU plan that was supposed to cover 160,000 people and which expires in September.

“We are of the opinion … that the people in question here already sought an asylum application or arrived in Italy or Greece,” Kern said. “We must check whether we have already fulfilled our quota and discharged our obligation.”

Austria took in roughly 90,000 asylum seekers in 2015, more than 1 percent of its population. More than a million migrants arrived in Germany that year, most of them having passed through Austria after crossing the Balkans from Greece.

Austria has repeatedly called on other EU countries to take their fair share, and has even backed the idea of financial penalties for those that do not.

The Commission granted Austria a temporary exception because of the large number of people it had taken in, but that has since expired.

“Austria is now expected to fulfill its legal obligation … to start relocating,” Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said.

The government has been seeking to erode support for the Freedom Party with a series of law-and-order measures and stricter immigration rules.

An “integration bill” agreed in cabinet on Tuesday would ban face-veils in public places and oblige unemployed refugees to perform jobs “of public utility” for no pay beyond their normal benefit payments.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; additional reporting by Waverly Colville in Brussels; Editing by Catherine Evans and Robin Pomeroy)

Migrant relocation plan must be bigger and move faster according to U.N.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi meets with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the Maximos Mansion in Athens

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) – A European Union scheme to relocate migrants and refugees from frontline countries Greece and Italy to other member states must be bigger and move faster, the U.N. refugee chief said in Athens on Wednesday.

The program, devised last year, was intended to relocate 160,000 from Greece and Italy to other European countries over two years but fewer than 4,000 people have moved so far.

Some central European member had fought the scheme, with Hungary and Slovakia challenging the decision in EU courts.

“I will certainly continue to advocate on behalf of the refugees, on behalf of the states hosting them – Italy and Greece principally – for this program to be bigger and to be accelerated,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told reporters.

“It is one example of European solidarity and cooperation that can and must work so we need to put all our energy in trying to make it work.”

Italy’s interior minister said on Tuesday that Germany had agreed to take in hundreds of migrants who are blocked in Italy.

Asked if the program could still work, Grandi said: “I hope that it will. Because in fact it must work.”

Grandi was speaking after a visit to a Syrian family from Aleppo, living in an Athens apartment under a scheme launched by the UNHCR and EU Commission.

The family of seven – a mother, two grandparents and four children – were displaced for years inside Syria before fleeing to Europe this summer. They are all relocation candidates.

“They left behind a good life to come here and to escape from the war,” said Sofia, whose family owns the apartment and who lives with her own family in the flat above, urging other Greeks to open their homes to refugees and migrants.

“We could have be in their shoes,” she said. She declined to give her family name.

The family are among more than 58,000 refugees and migrants, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, who have arrived in Greece since March hoping to move further north through Europe but who ended up stranded by border closures in the Balkans.

Most live in difficult, unsanitary camps across the country. Greece is also seeking new facilities to alleviate overcrowding at centres on five islands.

During his three-day visit to Athens, the second this year, Grandi said the UNHCR would keep pushing the EU for more support.

But he also underlined that efforts to end the conflict in Syria and other war-torn countries should be stepped up.

“Refugees are mostly the result of unresolved conflict and until and unless we solve those conflicts the risk of new influxes and new emergencies cannot be excluded,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Gina Kalovyrna; Editing by Alison Williams)