Israel deal for African migrants suspended: Netanyahu

People take part in a protest against the Israeli government's plan to deport African migrants in Tel Aviv Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday he was putting on hold an agreement with the United Nations refugee agency to relocate thousands of African migrants to Western countries.

Netanyahu said he would meet on Tuesday with residents of southern Tel Aviv.

The new formula reportedly will take up to five years to implement, and will include a plan to improve the living conditions in southern Israel, as well as redistribute the African population throughout Israel. This has ended most illegal crossings.

The migrants have become a political issue, with religious and conservative politicians portraying the presence of Muslim and Christian Africans as a threat to Israel's Jewish character.

The UNHCR in a statement confirmed an agreement was signed with Israel but did not name the countries that would accept the migrants.

"[This is] a unique agreement between the UN commissioner and the state of Israel, that takes 16,250 people out, takes them out to developed countries like Canada, or Germany and Italy - that is the commitment the UN High Commissioner has made - to organize it and even to fund it", Netanyahu said on live television.

Israel considers the vast majority of the almost 40,000 migrants to be job seekers and has said it has no legal obligation to keep them.

Canada, Italy and Germany are yet to officially confirm their participation in the agreement.

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In February, about 20,000 male migrants were handed notices that said they had two months or leave the country or risk facing prison time.

According to NAN, They had initially been given a deadline of April 1, but Israel's supreme court suspended the plan on March 15 while it continued to examine it. The right-wing government is under pressure from its nationalist voter base to expel the migrants, while others are calling for them to be taken in.

Israel's statement announcing the new plan on Monday said there was no longer a need to send migrants to unnamed third countries.

The Africans started moving toward Israel in 2005, after neighboring Egypt violently quashed a refugee demonstration and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel.

Most of the African migrants in Israel are from Eritrea and war-torn Sudan, saying they fled danger at home and that it is not safe to return.

The initial deportation was called off "because of legal considerations and diplomatic difficulties concerning third-party countries".

The UN refugee agency said it would work with the Israeli government to develop programmes to encourage some Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers to move out of Tel Aviv neighbourhoods where they have congregated.

Israeli officials had said that no one they classify as a refugee or asylum-seeker would be deported, though the process of granting asylum has been criticised as extremely slow and biased against claims.

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