Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly asked his security adviser on Wednesday to draw up a plan to forcibly expel undocumented asylum seekers, even as ministers approved a plan to imprison illegal migrants who refuse to leave “voluntarily.”
At a cabinet meeting, the prime minister tasked National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to come up with the plan, the Haaretz newspaper reported.
Ministers approved a plan to launch an “intensive effort” to ensure undocumented asylum seekers leave the country “voluntarily” by offering money to those who choose to go and imprisoning those who refuse to leave. “This plan will get under way today,” Netanyahu said at the start of the meeting.
However, at the request of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, the prime minister will also look for ways to force the migrants onto flights, in handcuffs if necessary, Haaretz reported. Erdan is said to have told Netanyahu that jailing them indefinitely would put a strain on the prison system and the state would incur a huge cost.
“The infiltrators have a simple choice — to cooperate with us and leave voluntarily, along a respectable, humanitarian and legal path — or we will have to use the other tools available to us, also according to the law. I hope they will choose to cooperate with us,” Netanyahu said at the meeting, according to the Haaretz report.
The prime minister said that there were some 60,000 illegal immigrants, but 20,000 have left.
The Interior Ministry’s Population and Migration Authority is to give Eritrean and Sudanese citizens who entered the country illegally the choice of leaving Israel within three months, or face being imprisoned indefinitely. From April the authority will begin an intensive effort to locate the migrants, and will fine anyone employing them, Haaretz reported.
Those migrants who choose to leave voluntarily will be given a grant of $3,500, but that amount will be reduced the longer they illegally stay in Israel. Though the state has not named the third countries, they have been identified in as Rwanda and Uganda in interviews with deported migrants.
Wednesday’s cabinet session marked the program’s transition from the planning stage to action, migrant aid worker Adi Drori-Avraham told AFP.
“We see here the implementation of the decision,” said Drori-Avraham of the Tel Aviv-based Aid Organisation for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF).
The Africans currently hold short-term residence visas which must be renewed every two months.
“From today when a person goes to request an extension to their visa, if he does not have a pending asylum application… his visa will not be renewed and he will be given a deportation order,” she added.
She said that under the new regulations there is also an option for the authorities “not even to threaten them with a choice of voluntary departure or jail, simply to seize them and take them to a plane”.
“At the moment there are exceptions for women, children, parents of children and victims of human trafficking, but the procedural rules make it clear that those exemptions are only temporary,” she added.
The move follows a new law passed last year that imposed tough new restrictions on illegal migrants and ordered the shuttering of the Holot detention facility in southern Israel by mid-March. The money set aside for the facility will be redirected to employ an extra 180 inspectors in the Immigration Authority. Additionally, the government is to set aside NIS 150 million ($43 million) for incentives to those who leave voluntarily.
A coalition of human rights groups slammed the cabinet decision in a joint statement.
“Israel is sending refugees to an unsafe state and many of them to their deaths. Rwanda is not safe. All eyewitness accounts tell us that those who are deported from Israel to Rwanda find themselves without status or rights and exposed to threats such as kidnapping, torture, and human trafficking,” the statement read.
“They are forced to continue their lives as refugees. Few of them succeed in surviving the journey and arrive in the end to a safe haven. The expulsion to Rwanda endangers the very lives of these refugees,” the organizations said.
Netanyahu defended the plan when he spoke about it before a cabinet meeting.
“Every country must maintain its borders, and protecting the borders from illegal infiltration is both a right and a basic duty of a sovereign state,” he said.
The decision follows the government’s November decision to close the Holot detention center, an open facility in Israel’s Negev desert that can host 1,200 migrants who are allowed to leave to work during the day. It is scheduled to be closed in March.
The proposal is the latest response by ministers to a High Court of Justice ruling in late August that backed Israel’s controversial practice of deporting illegal migrants to unnamed third countries.
Israel tacitly recognizes that Sudanese and Eritreans cannot be returned to their dangerous homelands, so it has signed deals with third countries, which agree to accept departing migrants on condition they consent to the arrangement, according to activists.
In August, the High Court of Justice ruled the policy was legal, but also said that Israeli authorities had to first ensure that the countries to which migrants were being deported were safe.
However, the High Court also ruled that since the deportations may only be carried out with the agreement of the migrants, refusal to leave Israel cannot be considered uncooperative behavior. And Israel may not imprison migrants who refuse to leave for more than 60 days.
It’s not clear how the new policy will fare in the High Court.
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.