The Israeli government has abandoned a plan to forcibly deport African migrants who entered the country illegally after failing to find a willing country to take in the migrants.
Government was working on an arrangement to expel thousands of mostly Eritrean and Sudanese men who crossed into Israel through Egypt’s Sinai desert.
“At this stage, the possibility of carrying out unwilling deportation to a third country is not on the agenda,” government wrote in a response to Israel’s Supreme Court, which examined the case.
Migrants will again be able to renew residency permits every 60 days, as they were before the deportation push, government said.
Migrants and rights groups say they want asylum and are fleeing war and persecution. Government says they are job seekers and it has every right to protect its borders.
Despite Tuesday’s climb-down, government said immigration authorities would still try to deport migrants voluntarily, drawing criticism from rights group Amnesty International.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after failing to reach agreement with any country to take them in, he would try to draft legislation to allow reopening of migrant detention centres in Israel.
The Supreme Court previously struck down legislation permitting detention and ordered the facilities closed.
Government’s U-turn was welcomed by those targeted for expulsion.
“I’m thrilled. I’m speechless. I was scared every day. If I can stay here it will be good, I’ve lived here so long – I have a job, I have Israeli friends. I am used to the place,” said Ristom Haliesilase, a 34-year-old Eritrean living in Tel Aviv, working as a carer for the elderly.
The fate of some 37,000 Africans in Israel is a moral dilemma for a state founded as a haven for Jews from persecution and a national home.
Around 4,000 migrants left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda since 2013 under a voluntary programme, but Netanyahu is under pressure from his right-wing voter base to expel thousands more.
After pulling out of a UN-backed relocation plan a few weeks ago, Israel shifted efforts towards finalising an arrangement to send migrants against their will to Uganda.
Migrant rights groups then petitioned the Supreme Court to block any such policy.
Amnesty also welcomed Tuesday’s decision but criticised Israel’s plan to continue with voluntary deportations.
“… in reality there is nothing voluntary about them. Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers agree to them under pressure. Israel remains under obligation not to transfer anyone to a country where they would be unsafe,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Amnesty will monitor the deportations.