Israel to send African migrants to Uganda

Interior minister says campaign to oust Sudanese and Eritreans ‘has been through all legal filters’

African migrants crossing into southern Israel through the border with Egypt in 2010 (photo credit: Assaf Golan/AP)
African migrants crossing into southern Israel through the border with Egypt in 2010 (photo credit: Assaf Golan/AP)

Uganda was revealed Thursday as the African country that will absorb migrants to be deported by Israel in the coming months.

On Wednesday, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced that Israel signed an agreement with an African country, which he did not name, that will accept migrants who choose to leave the country voluntarily.

The east African nation will shelter Eritrean migrants and act as a transit point for Sudanese people as they head back to their home country, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The effort to deport the migrants, set to begin in the coming weeks, will also target those who refuse to leave by clamping down on the conditions of their stay in Israel.

“In the first stage we will focus on raising awareness and information among the migrant population while also helping to make all the exit arrangements,” Sa’ar told the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee on Wednesday.

On Thursday, he said the migrants would be safe in the host country, and would be allowed to work there, and that the procedures for their departure from Israel had “been though all the necessary legal filters.”

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, December 2012 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Sa’ar noted that Israel will pay for the cost of the flights and provide a financial package that would take into consideration any money and property the migrants have accumulated during their time in the country.

The second stage of the plan will begin in earnest after the coming month of Jewish holidays in September, and will include a direct appeal to the migrants to leave of their own accord within a defined time period, Sa’ar told the Knesset panel. In addition, the state will begin taking action against those who refuse to go by no longer routinely extending their permits to stay in the country as well enforcing laws against the migrants who work and those who employ them.

The minister said Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein approved the plan a few days ago.

According to statistics from the Immigration and Absorption Authority, there are some 55,000 African migrants in Israel, 90% of them from Eritrea and Sudan.

Israel is also engaged in advanced negotiations with four other countries to absorb African migrants. The countries in question have asked not to be named, according to an affidavit submitted to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Special Envoy Hagai Hadas, who said he recently visited the countries to advance the deal.

The Knesset committee approved several new regulations aimed at preventing more illegal migration, restricting the amount of money African migrants can send out of the country and regulating the process for migrants to take their money and property with them when they leave. Migrants will be allowed to take the equivalent value of the Israeli minimum wage multiplied by the number of weeks they have been in the country, but no more than that, according to a Haaretz report.

“These regulations are another deterrent against the spread of [illegal immigration],” Sa’ar said in the meeting. “There are still tens of thousands of [African migrants] today, and we should [make it harder for them to stay] using [regulations that create] a negative economic impact [on them].”

Sa’ar estimated that there is a money-changing cycle of NIS 2 billion (some $500 million) in south Tel Aviv, of which upwards of NIS 700 million is from African migrants attempting to use money launderers and couriers to send money back to their home countries.

Police will be authorized to start enforcing the regulations against the money changers starting September 13.

The chairman of the Knesset Foreign Workers Committee, Michael Rozin (Meretz) criticized Sa’ar’s plan for being opaque and dictatorial in not naming the destination country and leaving full details undisclosed. Rozin added that the migrants could not be said to be “returning out of free will.”

“The alternative is threats of imprisonment and hounding by the authorities,” he said. “If the State of Israel is proud of the solution it has reached to transfer the migrants to a safe third country, then we expect it to reveal the details of the agreement.”

Israel has been searching for ways to deal with the African migrant community, although the influx has slowed since it improved its fencing on the southern border with Egypt. The presence of thousands of African migrants has led to tensions in Tel Aviv, including a violent protest in May 2012 that saw a mob vandalize African stores and smash the windows of a car with African passengers.

Residents of the working-class Tel Aviv neighborhoods where many migrants have clustered regularly complain of street crime as a result of the migrant influx, including two rape incidents in the weeks before the 2012 protests.

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