Several Eritrean and Sudanese migrants who had been held in detention centers in southern Israel were flown, courtesy of the government, to countries in Africa for permanent resettlement recently, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar confirmed Tuesday.
According to Sa’ar, the migrants had arrived in a number of African states in accordance with an agreement signed by both Israel and the destination countries’ governments, Haaretz reported.
The minister said that only a few dozen Africans had left the country, but added that he hoped more individuals would follow suit and leave Israeli territory of their own accord.
“Any migrant who wants to go out to a third country can do it, he does not need my approval, he does not need approval from the Ministry of the Interior, he does not need an agreement with the [other] states — he can just do it.”
The Interior Minister went on to criticize Israeli human rights groups, saying they were confusing the migrants — most of whom are asylum seekers that entered Israel through Egypt — by suggesting that Israel was attempting to expel them. He insisted that the migrants had not been forced to exit the country.
“Even radical organizations protesting against government policy cannot entrench themselves on the tarmac and prevent [the migrants] from leaving,” Sa’ar said.
“Anyone who leaves, whether it’s to their country of origin or a third country, is doing so out of free will, out of choice.”
In mid-February, Sa’ar stated that an estimated 1,500 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants would leave Israel willingly by the end of the same month.
The number of migrants who had exited the country in February was “reminiscent of the number of infiltrators who entered Israel during the peak of illegal infiltration,” Sa’ar said without specifying.
The Israeli government reportedly offers migrants grants amounting to $3,500 to leave the country of their own accord. That financial incentive, along with the disincentive of the “infiltration law,” under which illegal African immigrants can be held in detention centers in southern Israel for indeterminate periods, have prompted some Africans to reconsider staying in the country.
In 2013, 2,612 asylum-seekers, 1,955 of whom were from Sudan or Eritrea, left Israel as part of a voluntary departure program, up from just 461 in 2012. There are currently upwards of 50,000 African migrants in Israel.
In early January, thousands of African asylum seekers took to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to protest government policies, and to demand refugee status. After a week, the series of rallies and strikes ended, largely without success, and with government officials maintaining that the current legislation would not be changed.