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Israel Moves to Deport 40,000 African Migrants

FILE - African asylum seekers, who entered Israel illegally via Egypt, lean at the fence of the Holot detention center in Israel's southern Negev Desert, on Feb. 17, 2014 as they join other migrants who came to protest outside the detention facility.

The fate of 40,000 African migrants in Israel remains unclear after lawmakers approved a proposal to deport them.

The Cabinet in Jerusalem voted unanimously Sunday to close the isolated Holot detention facility in the Negev Desert. Holot houses thousands of Africans who entered Israel illegally. The center is due to shut down in three months, and residents will face the option of leaving the country or going to prison.

FILE - Christian African Eritrean migrants gather ahead of praying at a makeshift church in southern Tel Aviv on Sept. 2, 2017.
FILE - Christian African Eritrean migrants gather ahead of praying at a makeshift church in southern Tel Aviv on Sept. 2, 2017.

Impoverished Africans, mostly from war-torn Eritrea and Sudan, swarmed across Israel’s southern border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula from around 2006 until 2013, when the completion of a massive border fence cut off the influx.

Asylum or better life?

The migrants describe themselves as refugees seeking political asylum, but Israel sees the majority as illegal economic migrants and even “infiltrators.” Many live in squalid neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv, where Israeli locals blame them for rising crime and a deteriorating quality of life.

“This is the right policy to ease the suffering of residents in south Tel Aviv and other neighborhoods where the infiltrators reside,” said Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who initiated the deportation proposal. “My duty is to return peace and quiet to south Tel Aviv and many neighborhoods across the country.”

Officials say it is a national duty “to protect the Jewish and democratic character” of the state.

“Our policy toward infiltrators is three staged,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Cabinet. “Stage one is halting [the influx]. We built a fence and enacted laws that completely blocked the flow of infiltrators, and today we have zero infiltrators. The second stage is removal. We removed approximately 20,000 out of the existing infiltrators using various measures. Stage three is … to continue removing significantly more than what we have until now.”

Netanyahu spoke of “an international agreement… which allows us to remove the 40,000 remaining infiltrators without their consent.” The deal is reportedly with Rwanda and perhaps Uganda, which are said to have agreed to take in the migrants.

The controversial Cabinet decision has brought condemnation from both at home and abroad. “Israel's current policies treat asylum seekers as threats and aim to coerce them into leaving Israel,” the Tel Aviv-based African Refugee Development Center said on its website. “However, this strategy continues to put asylum seekers at risk without a true guarantee of legal protection or safety.”

UN concerned

The UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, said it was seriously concerned about the proposal.

“Due to the secrecy surrounding this policy and the lack of transparency concerning its implementation, it has been very difficult for UNHCR to follow up and systematically monitor the situation of people relocated to these African countries,” the agency said in a statement.

UNHCR expressed concern in the statement that "these persons have not found adequate safety or a durable solution to their plight and that many have subsequently attempted dangerous onward movements within Africa or to Europe.”

Critics in Israel point to a moral dilemma, comparing the Africans to Jewish refugees who were turned away from the United States and many European countries during the Holocaust. Officials here, however, say Israel was created as a refuge and homeland for the Jewish people, and not for underprivileged Africans seeking a better life.