Israel released a small group of African migrants awaiting deportation following the collapse of an international deal to send them to Rwanda.
Another about 200 migrants are still at Saharonim detention centre in southern Israel awaiting possible deportation to Uganda. Their fate depends on whether an Israeli envoy who visited the east African state managed to secure a deal for them to be taken in.
In the event no agreement is reached, they too will be freed, probably on Thursday. The long-term fate of the released migrants is unclear with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking a new relocation deal, but he gave no details.
Netanyahu said he was cancelling an agreement with the UN refugee agency to relocate thousands of African migrants, bowing to right-wing pressure at home to scrap the deal.
Netanyahu critics seized on his backtracking on the arrangement – which would have seen other migrants winning the right to remain in Israel – as a sign of political weakness.
For the estimated 37,000 migrants in Israel, most from Eritrea and Sudan, the whirlwind of announcements over the past three days about their future has put their status even deeper in limbo.
On Monday, Netanyahu announced the arrangement with the UNHCR that would have relocated about 16,250 migrants to Western countries.
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 announced he was putting the agreement’s implementation on hold and by Tuesday, he killed it.
The 58 migrants freed from Saharonim boarded buses to Tel Aviv. They were freed because the state could not give assurances to the Supreme Court it had a safe haven for them abroad.
“I have been detained for six months and at lunch time today the police came and told me I was being released, I don’t know where I’ll go,” Musia Bara from Eritrea told Israel’s Channel 1.
Several hundred migrants demonstrated in central Jerusalem on Wednesday demanding to stay and for forced deportations to stop.
Eritrean Muluebrhan Ghebrihiwet (27) a demonstrator who has been in Israel for almost seven years and released from detention last month, said Israel’s government was playing mind games with the migrants.
“We are grateful to the Israeli public for their support but government has waged a psychological war against us and they have done so because of politics but we are refugees, human beings and we demand they stop,” he said.