Amid harsh scenes of police rounding up frightened African migrants broadcast nightly on the television news, and as an ugly wave of anti-migrant feeling has swept across some sectors of society, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pledged at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting an orderly deportation process of the migrants that will “preserve the dignity” of those slated for expulsion.
The first planeload of South Sudanese migrants to be deported was scheduled to leave Sunday night, and Netanyahu said a second plane would leave next week.
“Today, the government will begin the operation to repatriate illegal work infiltrators to their countries of origin,” he said. “We will do this is an orderly and dignified manner.”
Even as the deportations were beginning, Clement T. Dominic, the South Sudanese official overseeing the airlifts, told Reuters that the new nation will open up its embassy in Jerusalem, a move that would make it the only country to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the capital.
“I am telling you we are going to open our embassy in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv,” said Dominic, the undersecretary of the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry. “South Sudan and Israel, we consider ourselves brothers and sisters because we have very strong relationship.
The situation is good at home, and that is why we are encouraging them (migrants) to come back.”
Netanyahu, meanwhile, commended the work of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority’s Oz Unit that is responsible for rounding up the migrants.
“They do important work under difficult conditions,” he said. “I ask them, I am also certain that this is how they operate, to continue treating humanely those infiltrators whom they detain. I also request this, in word and deed, from public officials.”
Netanyahu made no specific reference to Likud MK Miri Regev, who recently referred to the Sudanese migrants as a cancer in Israel’s midst, or to Interior Minister Eli Yishai who said that the migrants were turning south Tel Aviv into the “garbage can of the country.”
“We have a Jewish tradition of treating strangers humanely, and even when we need to deport them from our midst due to the state’s desire to control its borders, we must do so humanely and in a manner that finds expression in a restrained and humane manner,” he said.
Netanyahu said the government is dealing with the migrant problem through the completion of the border fence with Egypt within the next few months; an expedited process to deport infiltrators, in some cases to third countries: and taking away the motivation for others to come to Israel by implementing a number of steps.
These disincentive steps include ending the practice of directing infiltrators to Tel Aviv or other locations, and rather transferring them directly to detention centers where they can be held for up to two years. In addition, Netanyahu said the Knesset approved a law last week to level strict penalties on employers giving the migrants work.
“The infiltrators come here to work,” Netanyahu said. “If there will not be work for them here they will have no reason to come.”
The prime minister gave no specifics about what third countries might be willing to take in the deported migrants.
Over the last few weeks various government officials said that the chance of this happening were very slim.
Reuters contributed to this report.