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Netanyahu says claims Rwanda unsafe for deported migrants 'absurd'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Rwandan President Paul Kagame at World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, January 24, 2018
GPO
Israel reportedly supported a controversial move by Rwanda to rename a day commemorating the Rwandan genocide

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that it is "absurd" to call Rwanda an unsafe destination for African asylum seekers that Israel wishes to deport.

A law passed late last year offers the 37,288 mainly Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel a choice between deportation to Rwanda or imprisonment. Refugee advocates say the several thousand asylum seekers who have already been sent to the tiny African state were forced to leave almost immediately by officials, who often solicited bribes.

Speaking of a mooted new deal with Rwanda to take up to 10,000 further asylum seekers, Netanyahu told cabinet ministers that "the designated country to which they are being sent has already absorbed 180,000 refugees under the aegis and supervision of the UN, because the UN considers it to be one of the safest countries in Africa."

"Therefore, this campaign is baseless and absurd, especially today," he added.

Rwanda is one of Africa's most developed economies despite suffering a civil war and genocide in 1994 in which to up to one million people died. Netanyahu has met frequently with President Paul Kagame, the country's long-time authoritarian leader.

Resolute support

MENAHEM KAHANA (AFP/File)

Netanyahu's statement came only two days after Israel supported a controversial move by Rwanda in the UN General Assembly to amend the name of an annual day commemorating the 1994 genocide, which was perpetrated by the Hutu people against Tutsis.

The title of the international day of observance, initially adopted in 2003, was changed from "International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda" to "International Day of Reflection on the 1994 against the Tutsi in Rwanda."

According to Israel's Channel 10 the change was co-sponsored by Israel but opposed by the United States, Canada and several European countries on the grounds it deliberately overlooked the thousands of moderate Hutus who were also killed.

An unnamed senior official in Israel's foreign ministry told the channel that "one of the main reasons for our support for the resolution was [to secure Rwanda's backing for the] infiltrators agreement with Rwanda."

Western diplomats were reportedly aghast at Israel's backing for the move because critics see it as attempting to re-write the history of the genocide, the world's worst since the Holocaust.

Boosted processing

AP Photo/Oded Balilty

Netanyahu added in his remarks to ministers that 45 new positions were being added to the office which deals with sifting through refugee applications, and that those who are found to have a legitimate claim will be settled in Israel.

However, he insisted that the bulk of the Eritreans and Sudanese -- who crossed into Israel via Egypt before the construction of a border fence -- are in the country illegally to seek work.

Regardless, the government plan  has sparked outrage in Israeli civil society, including reactions from religious, intellectual and media figures, leading to an outbreak of protests through out the center of the country. 

Former diplomats, US Jewish groups, Holocaust survivors, and Israeli doctors, teachers, and El Al airline pilots have all joined in urging Netanyahu to reconsider the policy.

On Saturday, an immigration authority office in Tel Aviv was vandalized with a gruesome display that featured severed doll heads strewn in a puddle of red paint along with messages warning against the deportation.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that Israel has only accepted 10 people for asylum from Eritrea or Sudan, although there is a limited resettlement program for those from the famine and violence-wracked Darfur region of Sudan.

7,191 Eritreans and Sudanese have voluntarily returned to their home countries since 2014, according to figures from Israel's Immigration and Population Authority.

Only 18 people managed to cross the Egypt-Israel border in 2016, and none since.

Israel also hosts several thousand asylum seekers from Eastern European countries, chiefly Ukraine and Georgia, whom officials believe have applied for refuge only to allow the applicants to work in Israel while their claims are processed.

See also: 

Netanyahu agrees to only deport African migrants according to international law

African asylum-seekers gear up protests against forced deportation

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