Tel Aviv, Israel : Israel Supreme Court, Thursday, suspended “until further notice”, a government plan to deport African refugees and asylum seekers. The temporary restraining order was issued in response to a petition signed by 120 refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan and will be in effect at least until March 26 when the government is required to provide further information.
The court’s ruling will not apply to African migrants who have already volunteered to leave Israel for a third African country, which has not been named but is believed to be either Rwanda or Uganda.
Israel’s Cabinet in January approved a plan and the budget to deport thousands of migrants from Sudan and Eritrea.
Prior to that, the Population and Immigration Authority notified the migrants that as of Jan. 1, they must return to their own countries or to a third nation, or be sent to jail until they are deported.
According to the government plan, migrants who choose to leave by March 31 will receive a payment of $3,500 as well as free airfare and other incentives, according to reports.
For now, deportation notices will not be issued to women, children, fathers of children, anyone recognized as a victim of slavery or human trafficking, and those who had requested asylum by the end of 2017 but have not received a response.
There are up to 40,000 Eritreans and Sudanese living in Israel, including 5,000 children.
On Wednesday, Israel closed the Holot detention center for migrants in the southern Negev desert as part of the deportation plan.
Human rights activists in Israel and major U.S. Jewish organizations have urged the Israeli government not to go ahead with the plan to force the migrants to choose between jail and deportation.
Since Netanyahu announced the deportation plan, some Holot inmates have been transferred to the nearby Saharonim prison. Others who had submitted asylum requests before January 1 were released pending a decision.
Holot, an open facility where inmates were free to leave during the day but had to return at night, was opened in 2013 with the aim of siphoning migrants away from the cities, the immigration authorities say.
Immigration authority spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said 300 had been freed after agreeing to leave the Jewish state. Those released were barred from living or working in seven cities with high migrant populations, including Tel Aviv – where most are concentrated, Jerusalem and the Red Sea resort of Eilat, she said.
Netanyahu has pledged to “return south Tel Aviv to the citizens of Israel,” adding that the Africans were “not refugees but illegal infiltrators”. Those opposed to the plan include Holocaust survivors who say the country has a special duty to protect migrants.
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 the United Nations High Commision For Refugees, UNHCR.