Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday he was suspending a plan to send thousands of migrants to three Western countries, putting the brakes on a decision he had announced only hours earlier.
Netanyahu said on his Facebook page that the deal would be re-examined. He had come under heavy criticism for the agreement by members of his coalition and citizens of a south Tel Aviv community where a large migrant community lives.
Under the plan, made with the United Nations Refugee Agency, Israel was to send at least 16,250 African migrants to Canada, Italy and Germany. Netanyahu had said earlier Monday that the agreement was the result of an “unprecedented understanding” with the UNHCR.
The plan allowed for thousands of other African migrants to stay in Israel.
There are approximately 37,000 illegal immigrants in Israel, the majority from Eritrea or Sudan, according to the Population and Immigration Authority.
The agreement with the UNHCR had been an attempt to address criticism of an even earlier plan, in which migrants would be offered $3,500 and an airplane ticket to leave for a sub-Saharan African country. Uganda and Rwanda were widely reported by the Israeli media as potential host countries.
That plan was successfully challenged by human rights groups at Israel’s High Court on March 15, where a temporary order blocked its implementation.
Many of the migrants from Sudan fled from war and poverty. In Eritrea, they escaped a brutal dictatorship that conscripts men and women into the military for life.
Many of those seeking refuge made their way to Israel. But in 2013, Israel completed a fence running the length of the Sinai border, halting the flow of illegal migrants there almost immediately.
At its highest point, there were some 65,000 illegal immigrants in Israel. Over the past decade, the Population and Immigration Authority says it has received 54,600 requests for asylum. Only 33 have been accepted. Tens of thousands remain mired in the bureaucratic process, though Israeli leaders say they have added staff to clear the backlog.
That makes Israel’s rate of granting asylum among the lowest in the Western world.
In comparison, through the first three quarters of 2017, nearly 90% of asylum seekers in the European Union were granted refugee status, according to a compilation of data from Eurostat, the EU’s data compilation site. More than 60% of asylum seekers from Sudan were granted similar status.
This story has been updated to correct the timeline around the departure of the first 6,000 migrants.
Amir Tal reported from Jerusalem. CNN’s James Masters wrote from London. Ingrid Formanek contributed to this report.