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4 Jun, 2013 12:32

Destination unknown: Israel to deport thousands of African migrants

Destination unknown: Israel to deport thousands of African migrants

Israel plans to expel thousands of African refugees to an unidentified third country, according to a court document obtained Monday, in an initiative that has provoked concerns from human rights groups.

The program is an effort to confront one of Israel's more persistent problems: What to do with some 60,000 African migrants – the majority from Eritrea and Sudan – who have illegally crossed the border into Israel from Egypt over the past eight years.

During a Supreme Court hearing on Sunday that questioned the legality of detaining asylum-seekers who entered Israel secretly, a government attorney said an agreement to resettle "infiltrators from Eritrea" had been reached with an unidentified third country, according to Reuters.

"There is an arrangement with one country, which will be an end-destination and not a transit point," the lawyer said, according to a transcript provided by the Justice Ministry on Monday.

There are an estimated 35,000 Eritreans currently living illegally in Israel, but deporting them to their homeland, a state accused of torture last year by the UN human rights chief, is difficult under international law.

Resettling the migrants in another country could also raise legal issues. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says resettlement can only be considered once refugee status has been granted – which Israel has not done – although exceptions can be made.

Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, states are obligated not to send refugees to countries where they would face physical or political danger. It is unclear whether that requires the convention’s signatories, of which Israel is one, to monitor the refugees indefinitely after they are deported.

A labourer works on the border fence between Israel and Egypt near the Israeli village of Be'er Milcha (Reuters / Nir Elias)

Human rights organizations say many of the migrants should be considered for asylum, but Israel views the new arrivals as illegal job-hunters. The situation has sparked a national debate on whether Israel – a Jewish state founded by refugees and immigrants – has a moral duty to protect the wellbeing of the migrants.

Their arrivals have put Israel in a difficult position, according to Max J. Rosenthal, writing for AP.

“Many Israelis believe that the Jewish state, founded in part as a refuge for Holocaust survivors after World War II, has a responsibility to help the downtrodden,” Rosenthal commented. “But others fear that taking in tens of thousands of Africans will threaten the country's Jewish character and question the extent of Israel's moral obligations beyond those of other nations.”
While the fate of the migrants remains uncertain, Israel has taken rather dramatic steps to stem the influx in illegal immigration. Over the past year, Israel has constructed a barrier along its border with Egypt that has dramatically reduced the number of illegal arrivals. Israel is also incarcerating individuals who attempt to cross into the country while authorities determine whether they are eligible for refugee status.  

"Compared with the more than 2,000 infiltrators who entered Israel exactly a year ago and dispersed in various cities, only two crossed the border last month, and they were arrested," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday.

A South Sudanese boy is lifted as he waves goodbye to his friend on board a bus before its departure to Ben Gurion airport from Tel Aviv's central bus station (Reuters / Baz Ratner)

"Now we have to focus on repatriating the illegal infiltrators already here, and we will fulfill this mission," he said in a statement, which made no mention of any resettlement arrangement.

The Israeli leader on Monday voted in favor of a bill prohibiting illegal migrants from taking money out of the country.

Last month, the legal rights of the illegal arrivals gained attention when Israeli police admitted to having collected some 1,000 DNA samples from African refugees after using a security-related loophole to open criminal cases against some of them.

Police officials, who had their request for collecting refugees’ DNA samples rejected by Knesset committees, chose to circumvent the ruling by opening criminal cases against the African migrants, which was not difficult since they had gained entrance into the country. The police then classified their entry as a ‘security-related’ crime, Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

In 2012, Israeli police collected more than 600 samples. However, they have not solved any reported crimes as a result of the DNA collection, Haaretz said.

Israel’s plan to deport many of the estimated 60,000 migrants began in earnest in July of last year, when Netanyahu said the African migrants “are seen by many Israelis as a law and order issue and even a threat to the long-term viability of the Jewish state.”