Israeli authorities expect well over a thousand African migrants to voluntarily leave the country over the course of February, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said Tuesday.
Sa’ar said that so far in February over 700 African migrants had opted to take a $3,500 stipend and leave, adding that by the end of the month their number was expected to reach 1,500. If so, it would be a marked increase over January and December, when 773 and 325, respectively, returned home, according to Interior Ministry figures.
“The increase in the number of infiltrators that we see [returning home] is dramatic,” Sa’ar said, adding that “the number leaving each month brings to mind the numbers that were entering Israel at the peak of the illegal infiltration to Israel.”
According to Israeli government figures, there are over 54,000 African migrants in Israel.
Sa’ar’s comments came during a visit to a center set up by the ministry recently in Eilat to process applications by migrants seeking to go home or leave Israel and relocate to a third country, such as Uganda.
The concept of willful return is controversial. Opponents say that if the only alternative is to be jailed, the decision to return is not voluntary.
The government credits the higher numbers to three things: its decision to increase the stipend from $1,500 to $3,500; the construction of the Holot detention facility in the western Negev; and a new law allowing Israel to jail for a year or longer those people caught illegally entering the country.
Also on Tuesday, the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority said that two Sudanese men had crossed into Israel from Egypt on Monday night and were jailed. They joined a further 12 who were caught infiltrating since the beginning of the year.
In addition, a group of around 500 African migrants and supporters began a march from the Holot facility to Beersheba, from where they said they would continue to Tel Aviv and decide their next act of protest.
In Egypt, meanwhile, authorities are planning to deport seven Africans of various nationalities who were captured while trying to cross into Israel, security sources said. The migrants appeared in court and were being transferred from Sinai to Cairo in preparation for deportation to their country, according to a report on Monday in Al-Youm al-Sabaa.
Other infiltrators are waiting for decisions on their cases.
The question is whether Egypt is changing its policy or merely increasing its border vigilance amid a heightened security presence in Sinai.
“My impression is that this has a lot to do with the necessity for close coordination with Israel over the Gaza-Sinai border,” Joshua Goodman, an expert on the Beduin in Israel and Sinai, and author of Contesting Identities in South Sinai: Development, Transformation and the Articulation of a Beduin Identity under Egyptian Rule, told The Jerusalem Post.
“I have to imagine that Egypt and Israel are cooperating very closely regarding Sinai security right now, since the last thing anyone wants is an incident,” he said.
In the past, Egyptians have been accused of treating migrants quite harshly, including allegations of shootings at the border, so this could be “a more moderate policy than what they used to implement,” said Goodman, who is currently working on a PhD at Yale.
Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report dealing with the trafficking and torture of Eritreans in Egypt and Sudan. It said that reports began to emerge in 2010 that traffickers sometimes turned on the people they were smuggling, “kidnapping and abusing them to extort money from their relatives in exchange for onward travel.”