Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority on Sunday began serving deportation notices to Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and asylum seekers, telling them that they would be sent to an unnamed African country that enjoys a relatively “stable government.”
“This is a country that has developed tremendously over the last decade and has absorbed thousands of returning residents as well as migrants from various African countries,” read the deportation notice, issued to hundreds of migrants as they stood in line at the Interior Ministry offices in Bnei Brak to renews their visas on Sunday.
“In recent years, this country has shown the highest economic growth figures in Africa, thanks to exports from the US and Europe, as well as a flourishing tourism industry,” the immigration authority notice read. “In this country, there is a stable government that encourages development in many areas, including medicine, education, medicine and infrastructure.”
Israel has refused to publicly divulge which African countries have agreed to absorb the migrants from Africa, though media reports and some Israeli officials have indicated that Uganda and Rwanda are the destination countries.
Under the plan, any of the 40,000 or so who voluntarily leave Israel by the end of March will receive $3,500 and a plane ticket to the unnamed country.
On April 1, the immigration authority plans to begin imprisoning or forcibly expelling those who have not yet left.
Speaking to the migrants outside the Bnei Brak office, Hadashot TV news said most of them said they would rather go to jail in Israel than return to their countries of origin or be deported to Rwanda or Uganda.
However, senior officials in the Israel Prison Service were quoted on Sunday as saying the country doesn’t have enough cells to jail the thousands who are expected to refuse voluntary departure or deportation.
In recent weeks, groups of Israeli pilots, doctors, writers, former ambassadors and Holocaust survivors have appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the deportation plan, warning it was unethical and would cause grave damage to Israel’s self-described image as a light unto the nations.
Even Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, has weighed in. While rejecting any comparisons between the plight of the migrants and the victims of the Holocaust, it said the issue nonetheless is a “national and international challenge that requires empathy, compassion and mercy.”
Still, the backlash has struck a raw nerve, with the government accusing some critics of cynically invoking comparisons to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany.
“This campaign is baseless and absurd,” Netanyahu said last week. “Genuine refugees and their families will remain in Israel. We have no obligation to allow illegal labor migrants who are not refugees to remain here.”
Advocates dispute that, noting Israel’s poor record of processing refugee requests. They note that of some 15,000 African refugee status requests, only 11 have been approved, citing this as evidence that Israel is being disingenuous and not living up to international standards.
The Africans began migrating to Israel in 2005 after neighboring Egypt violently quashed a demonstration by Sudanese refugees in which at least 27 were killed, and word began to spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel. Since then, Israel has been grappling with how to balance the country’s history as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution against the fear that the swelling numbers would threaten its Jewish character.
About 60,000 migrants crossed Israel’s previously porous desert border with Egypt before a barrier was completed in 2012 along the 130-mile (220-kilometer) frontier.
Since then about 20,000 have left either voluntarily, via a United Nations program, or with the encouragement of the government, which offers each about $3,500 and a plane ticket to leave. Others have found themselves locked up for lengthy periods in a massive detention center in the remote southern desert, keeping them away from their menial jobs in hotels and restaurants.
Still, thousands of migrants are concentrated in neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv, where ethnic food shops and phone card stalls line the streets, and the area has become known as “Little Africa.” This has sparked tension with the working-class Jewish residents who have been putting pressure on the government to find a solution.
In December, the Knesset approved an amendment to the so-called “Infiltrator’s Law” paving the way for the forced deportations of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and asylum seekers, and the indefinite imprisonment of those who refuse to leave.
Last week, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said his office will draw a distinction between Africans who came to Israel seeking work and refugees who came from war zones seeking sanctuary. He said anyone who submitted requests for asylum by December 31, 2017, and whose request has not yet been processed, will not be deported, including mothers, children and families.
Most young African migrants who did not arrive with children did not submit requests for asylum, Deri said.
AP contributed to this report.