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Netanyahu’s About-Face On African Asylum-Seekers Leaves Tens Of Thousands In Limbo

It was a tumultuous week for tens of thousands of African asylum-seekers in Israel, though it ultimately produced no clarity on whether some or all of them might be permitted to stay in the country and where they might go if they’re kicked out.

On Monday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that his government and the United Nations refugee agency had reached an “unprecedented understanding” by which more than 16,000 of the African asylum-seekers, many of whom are from Eritrea and Sudan, would be resettled in Western countries. This represented roughly half the total currently being hosted by Israel, and the deal called for Netanyahu’s government to allow the remainder to stay.

Within hours, however, Netanyahu backtracked, an apparent capitulation to conservative hard-liners that left observers increasingly pessimistic about his ability to find a workable solution. “This sort of zigzagging is not at all unusual,” one analyst told The New York Times. “But for someone considered such a political genius to make such a miscalculation, that’s the surprising part of the story.”

Amid the confusion generated by his conflicting statements, Netanyahu may also have jeopardized his relationship with African allies, notably Rwanda, that are essential to Israel’s broader charm offensive on the continent—an effort we wrote about last December. Rwanda is reported to be at the center of an Israeli scheme to deport Africans back to the continent, though this has generally not been openly discussed. This week, however, Netanyahu said Rwanda had in fact agreed to resettle asylum-seekers before going back on its word, forcing Israel to seek other options.

Rwanda responded by saying it had only agreed to accept those asylum-seekers who were willing to relocate. Uganda also disputed reports that it had agreed to cooperate with Israel’s more sweeping resettlement efforts. “We do not have a contract, any understanding, formal or informal, with Israel for them to dump their refugees here,” said Henry Okello Oryem, Uganda’s foreign minister.

After Netanyahu’s reversal this week, the U.N. refugee agency expressed its disappointment and urged him to reconsider. It said the deal Netanyahu originally announced “was the result of discussions over an extended period of time, and reflected a shared effort to find a solution that gave international protection to people arriving in Israel fleeing war or persecution while also meeting the concerns of Israeli host communities.”

For the asylum-seekers themselves, the future remained as uncertain as ever. “All the time a new law, a new amendment, changes every time,” Halofom Sultan, who fled political persecution in Eritrea, told The Associated Press. “So I have no clear option or plan or clear vision of what will happen next.”

Keep up to date on Africa news with our daily curated Africa news wire.

Here’s a rundown of news from elsewhere on the continent:

East Africa

Somalia: A feud between President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and Mohamed Osman Jawari, the parliamentary speaker, escalated Wednesday when forces loyal to the two men nearly faced off in and outside parliament. The incident was precipitated by a no-confidence motion submitted by the president’s allies against Jawari, a move The New York Times said came in response to Jawari’s “growing political strength” and votes on foreign investment. Earlier in the week, fighters from the al-Shabab militant group attacked an African Union peacekeeping base, killing at least four Ugandan soldiers . And on Thursday, U.S. Africa Command said it had killed three al-Shabab militants in an airstrike.

Ethiopia: Abiy Ahmed was sworn in as prime minister Monday, replacing Hailemariam Desalegn. In a speech to lawmakers, he vowed to pursue democratic reforms and acknowledged that Ethiopians “all need to have a platform to voice our concerns.” Abiy is the first prime minister from the Oromo ethnic group, whose members have been deeply involved in anti-government protests dating back to 2015. He also vowed to try to resolve “years of misunderstandings” with neighboring Eritrea. As William Davison wrote for WPR in February, Abiy will face no shortage of obstacles in implementing his reform agenda.

West Africa

Sierra Leone: Julius Maada Bio, the candidate of the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party, was sworn in as presidentWednesday after narrowly defeating the ruling party’s candidate, Samura Kamara. Though Kamara said he would challenge the result, Bio told Reuters he would try to talk Kamara out of it, suggesting instead that Kamara would be given a role in the new government. Jamie Hitchen wrote a preview of the election for WPR last month, describing Maada Bio’s background and the promises he made on the campaign trail.

Mali: Authorities transferred Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where he faces charges of crimes against humanity related to his conduct in Timbuktu in 2012 and 2013, when the city was overtaken by Islamist militants. Reuters said Al Hassan served as “de-facto chief of Islamic police” during that time. In 2016, Sophie Rosenberg wrote for WPR about the verdict in the ICC’s previous Mali case, which concerned the destruction of mausoleums, also in Timbuktu, by Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi. Also this week, Amnesty International reportedthat a mass grave in central Mali contained the bodies of six people who’d been detained by the military. Rights groups are sounding the alarm about abuses committed by security forces as part of their crackdown on Islamist extremists. A joint operation by French and Malian forces reportedly killed 30 extremists near the border with Niger. And two U.N. peacekeepers were killed in an attack in the Kidal region.

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Central Africa

Democratic Republic of the Congo: The Italian town of San Vito dei Normanni confirmed that Moise Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga province who plans to contest this year’s presidential election, held Italian citizenship for 16 years, a revelation that could jeopardize his candidacy. “Under Congo’s constitution,” Reuters explained, “its nationals cannot hold dual citizenship and have to petition the government to regain their citizenship if they take up a foreign nationality.” Over the weekend, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, the leading opposition party, ruled that Felix Tshisekedi would be its presidential candidate. Tshisekedi’s father, Etienne Tshisekedi, was the longtime opposition standard-bearer in Congo before his death last year. A poll published last week found that eight in 10 Congolese disapproved of President Joseph Kabila, and nearly as many had doubts about the credibility of the upcoming election. Last November, we examined how Kabila has managed to stay in office well past the expiration of his mandate.

People walk past a campaign billboard for President Paul Biya, Yaounde, Cameroon, Oct. 7, 2011
(AP photo by Sunday Alamba).

Cameroon: The Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, the ruling party of President Paul Biya, claimed 63 of 70 Senate seats that were up for election. Biya will appoint the remaining 30 senators. It is the first in a series of votes expected to culminate in Biya’s re-election later this year. Meanwhile, in the Anglophone regions, there was confusion as to what exactly happened to a group of Western tourists. The government announced that 18 people, including Swiss and Italian tourists, were taken hostage by Anglophone separatists before being freed by elite Cameroonian soldiers. But the Swiss tour operator said the group was never kidnapped and only had their documents and vehicles checked while traveling through the region. We reported last December on the possibility that Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis, which dates back to late 2016, could become more violent this year.

North Africa

Morocco: Moroccan authorities claimed that forces loyal to the Polisario Front, which wants independence for the Western Sahara region, had entered the buffer zone between the two sides and called on the United Nations to take action to preserve the cease-fire. “Morocco is saying very clearly that all the options are under consideration,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said. “If the U.N., if the international community, don’t take their responsibilities, Morocco will take its own responsibility.” In response, the Polisario Front said the allegations were “utterly unfounded and false.”

Algeria: Despite the two countries’ bitter rivalry, Algeria came out in favor of Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup. “The decision of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to support Morocco’s candidacy to host the 2026 World Cup will be executed with pride,” Algeria’s youth and sports minister said. Separately, The Associated Press checked in on preparations for next year’s presidential election in Algeria, finding that “the lack of clarity over Bouteflika’s plans has so paralyzed politics that no one has declared an intention to run.”

Southern Africa

South Africa: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist and former first lady who was married to Nelson Mandela, died at 81 after a long illness. President Cyril Ramaphosa said she would be given a state funeral. And on Friday, former President Jacob Zuma appeared in court for his trial on corruption charges, though the case was adjourned until June 8.

Botswana: Mokgweetsi Masisi took over as president following the expiration of Ian Khama’s second five-year term. As Reuters reported, Masisi “inherits a state with a reputation as one of Africa’s rare political and economic success stories,” though he hopes to diversify the economy away from diamonds and create more jobs for young people. The next elections won’t be held in Botswana until October 2019, when Masisi, who served as vice president under Khama, is expected to head the ticket of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party.

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Written by How Africa

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