JERUSALEM - Israel is deporting a first planeload of African migrants back to their home country.
Israel says the deportation of 120 Africans to South Sudan is the first step toward expelling thousands more. More than 4,000 migrants who came from African countries that have friendly ties with Israel will be sent home on weekly flights.
Describing the migrants as "infiltrators," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is carrying out the deportation in a humane way while safeguarding their dignity.
Each deportee was given 1,000 euros to help them start a new life in South Sudan.
But for the migrants, deportation is a punishment. Many have been in Israel for years, having fled war or poverty for the relative prosperity of the Jewish state. Simon Meir, who describes himself a Sudanese refugee, says he and the others want asylum in Israel.
"We [are] asking peacefully that refugees from Sudan should be recognized as refugees here, to take their rights, to give them health care, education and, you know, all these things," he said.
Israel, however, says the vast majority of the 60,000 Africans who have arrived here since 2005 are not refugees, but economic migrants. The Africans have been blamed for a growing wave of violent crimes, including alleged rapes of young Jewish women, prompting a backlash among Israelis who have demanded their expulsion.
Israeli officials say the migrants are a threat to security and the Jewish character of the state, and the deportation of the South Sudanese is the beginning of a campaign to expel most Africans from the country. But that is easier said than done. While Israel has diplomatic ties with South Sudan, the vast majority of Africans here came from Eritrea and Sudan, which is considered an “enemy state.”
William Tall of the United Nations agency for refugees says Israel is bound by international agreements.
"Anyone from Sudan, because of the ‘enemy state’ relationship, is considered a de-facto refugee, also from Eritrea; the government recognizes that it can’t send anyone back because of their risk of persecution there," he said.
Israeli human rights activists and intellectuals have criticized the government’s crackdown on the Africans. They say that Israel is a nation of refugees established in the wake of the Holocaust, and it has a moral obligation to help people in need.