Tel Aviv, Israel : Thousands of African migrants received deportation notices from Israeli authorities on Sunday giving them 60 days to accept the offer to leave the country for an unnamed African destination in exchange for $3500 and a plane ticket. Those who don’t by April 1 will be incarcerated indefinitely according to reports.
The deportation plan has sparked outrage in Israel, where groups of pilots, doctors, writers, rabbis and Holocaust survivors have appealed to have it halted. They say the deportations are unethical and would damage Israel’s image as a refuge for Jewish migrants.
In December, the Israeli parliament passed a bill authorising the government to force asylum seekers out of the country.
During visits to detention centres, government representatives provided refugees with a letter that listed Rwanda – and on a previous occasion, Uganda – to relocate to.
“We would like to inform you that the state of Israel has signed agreements allowing you to leave Israel for a safe third country that will absorb you and give you a residency visa that will allow you to work in that country, and promises not to remove you to your country of origin,” the letter read.
Shortly after, Rwanda and Uganda rejected claims of signing a controversial deal to take in African migrants from the country.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier in a cabinet meeting said Israel is offering to pay thousands of African migrants living illegally in the country $3,500 and a free air ticket to return home or go to “third countries”, failing which they risk being jailed if caught after the end of March. Rights groups also identified the “third countries” as Rwanda and Uganda.
The migrants will be given up to $3,500 (£2,600) for leaving within the next 90 days.
Benjamin Netanyahu said that a barrier Israel completed in 2013 along its border with Egypt had effectively cut off a stream of “illegal infiltrators” from Africa after some 60,000 crossed the desert frontier.
Majority of the migrants in the country hail from Eritrea and Sudan and are said to have fled war and persecution as well as economic hardship. The migrants claim they are seeking asylum from persecution, although Israel views them as economic migrants
So far, 20,000 have been expelled from the country.
“We have expelled about 20,000 and now the mission is to get the rest out,” Netanyahu said.
“Beyond the end of March, those who leave voluntarily will receive a significantly smaller payment that will shrink even more with time, and enforcement measures will begin,” Netanyahu also said.
An immigration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there are some 38,000 migrants living illegally in Israel, and some 1,420 are being held in two detention centers, the report said.
Rights groups have accused Israel of being slow to process African migrants’ asylum requests as a matter of policy and denying legitimate claims to the status.
Netanyahu has called the migrants’ presence a threat to Israel’s social fabric and Jewish character, and one government minister has referred to them as “a cancer”.
He said the move was a way of keeping a promise to restore calm, security and law and order to the residence of South Tel Aviv where most of the African migrants live.
Between December 2013 and June 2017, about 4,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers were deported under Israel’s “voluntary departure programme” to Rwanda and Uganda, according to UNHCR.