Although Israel succeeded in stemming an influx of African asylum seekers in recent years by erecting a fence along the border with Egypt, a political incentive lingers for the government to crack down on the nearly 60,000 asylum seekers, who leaders say are threatening the state's Jewish character.
The majority of the migrants live in slums in south Tel Aviv and other areas and are seen as a threat and source of crime by many of the lower-income Israelis who live alongside them.
The reported agreement, announced by Israel's interior minister, comes without customary international monitoring or any evidence of guarantees ensuring the safety of those to be deported. Human rights groups are voicing alarm. But Israel insists it will inform the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) of "all the relevant information" once the system for deportations is in place and that there is no cause for concern because the relocations will be "voluntary."
Asylum seekers fear that they could be returned to their home countries by whatever country they are transferred to by Israel, worries that are shared by Human Rights Watch and some with UNHCR The identity of the third country is being kept secret at its request, according to Yigal Palmor, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman. Israeli press reports have named Uganda as the country.
Leslie Susser, diplomatic editor of the Jerusalem Report magazine, says the move is in part aimed at pleasing voters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. "It makes good political sense to claim 'We are making a start in solving' what for Likud voters in south Tel Aviv is a problem."
On several occasions over the last year, Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv attacked and wounded asylum seekers and those they mistook for asylum seekers.
But the secrecy in which Israel is shrouding its arrangements creates an environment in which abuses can take place, Human Right Watch warns.
"On any issue involving rights, be they refugee rights or human rights more generally, transparency is of the utmost importance, to be able to see, to assess, how rights are handled,'' says Bill Frelick, refugee program director at Human Rights Watch. ''Any time you have secrecy involved in the actual transfer of people or in the agreement so that it can't be examined and compared to international standards, that certainly raises alarm bells.''
He says HRW is concerned about a possible repatriation to Eritrea and Sudan, where the asylum seekers could face threats to their safety, persecution and imprisonment.
Other international agreements on transfer of asylum seekers to third countries, like the US-Canada Safe Third Party Agreement, were made with UNHCR involvement and were open to public scrutiny, Mr. Frelick says. In the US-Canada agreement, he says, there is provision against returning asylum seekers to places where they would face persecution and that pact is predicated on each country having "non-refoulement" provisions – measures that block the expulsion of those who might be considered refugees – in its domestic law.
"There have been times Canadians questioned whether the US implements its non-refoulement provisions fairly and adequately in the case of Haitians. So it's not been without controversy but it's been open to scrutiny,'' Frelick adds.
An Israeli official familiar with the third country arrangements told the Monitor that he did not know if the agreement contains any safeguards against the asylum seekers being returned to Sudan or Eritrea.
''The important thing is that everyone leaving Israel will be doing so of their own free will. This is voluntary," he says.
However, refugee rights groups dispute that the departures will be voluntary, noting that Interior Minister Gideon Saar said when announcing the agreement last week that he will take steps to encourage the asylum seekers to leave. The minister's plan would also make it impossible for the seekers to continue working at their jobs, mostly as cleaners or restaurant workers.
Mr. Saar told Knesset legislators that Hagai Hadass, a former senior Israeli intelligence official, had struck the agreement.
"A few weeks ago an agreement was reached with a country. The arrangement was approved by the legal adviser to the government," Saar said. "In parallel, efforts will continue to reach agreements with more countries."
A spokesman for Uganda's foreign ministry said no agreement has been reached and Israeli officials, insisting on anonymity, now assert that Saar's announcement was premature. "An agreement is being discussed but no final conclusion has been reached," an official said.
But Saar said that after the Jewish holidays this month, an organized effort to arrange the departure of Eritreans and Sudanese would be launched.
About 50,000 Eritreans and Sudanese live in Israel. Most of them arrived in the last seven years, coming from Egypt overland via the Sinai Peninsula. Most of the Eritreans fled indefinite military conscription in their country, while many of the Sudanese come from Darfur or other war-torn parts of Sudan.
About 80 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers are recognized in the West as refugees and granted asylum, according to Human Rights Watch. But Israel has yet to recognize even a single Eritrean as a refugee, according to Sigal Rozen, spokeswoman of the Tel Aviv-based Hotline for Migrant Workers.
Mr. Palmor, the foreign ministry spokesman, says voluntary transfer of Sudanese and Eritreans to a third country is necessary, even though asylum seekers have all but stopped entering Israel in recent months due to a preventive fence erected along the border with Egypt.
"People who have infiltrated and not been recognized as refugees have no right to stay. Their whole process of entry was illegal to begin with," he says
Peter Deck, senior protection officer at the Israel office of UNHCR, says Israel has not consulted the agency over the third country arrangements.
"There are standard procedures for any arrangement of movement of asylum seekers. It is a concern to UNHCR that both Israel and the [other] country did not consult us. We have not been involved at all. Our concerns include the safety of the individuals and the risk of refoulement from that other location," he says.
Those fears have a foundation. In 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claimed – but did not prove – that he had assurances from Egypt that Sudanese refugees returned there by Israel would not be mistreated or sent back to Sudan.
However, a group of 48 refugees, most of them Sudanese, expelled by Israel within 24 hours after their arrival, without hearings, disappeared in Egypt. An investigation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that at least five of the Sudanese were returned to Sudan. Sudan considers Israel an enemy state, and visiting it is a crime punishable by protracted imprisonment.
Amanuel Yamane, a leader of the Eritrean refugee community in Israel, fled the Eritrean army after 12 years of construction work and farming. He came to Israel almost six years ago, and says he is disappointed that Israel during that time did not check his claims to refugee status.
"People are very, very worried that soon we will be unable to take money out of the bank, rent an apartment or work. They will put pressure on us so that in the end a person signs their form," he says. "And tomorrow Uganda can make an agreement with Eritrea to return all the refugees."