Israel has effectively stopped the flow of Africans into the country and is moving to remove those already living on Israeli soil, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the cabinet on Sunday.
Only 54 Africans crossed the border into Israel from Egypt in the month of October, Netanyahu said, noting the dramatic decrease since earlier this year when over 1,000 were entering the country monthly.
Of the 54 who did cross the border, each was put into detention facilities, he continued. "This means that none of them reached Israel's cities."
But beyond having effectively halted the flow of infiltrators, asylum seekers and refugees, "we must focus – and we are doing so – on repatriating the infiltrators who are already in Israel," the prime minister said.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been one of the most vocal advocates of deporting or repatriating "every last migrant” to their country of origin despite any criticism.
Last month, responding to a deadline publicly declared by Yishai for Africans to leave Israel or face arrest and extended detention, the state attorney shot down Yishai's ability to declare such policy.
The state attorney also indicated that the Population Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) had made no such announcement because the government as a whole had not reached a decision on the issue. He then said that if any major decision were to be made on the issue, it would be announced by PIBA at least 30 days before it was due to be carried out.
There are an estimated 60,000 or more Africans in Israel, the majority of whom are from Sudan and Eritrea. The state has granted both group protection, precluding their deportation.
The state brands the vast majority of the migrants, more than 80 percent of whom are adult males, as illegal job-seekers. Humanitarian agencies say they should be considered for asylum.
The state was holding around 2,500 migrants caught at the Egyptian border or rounded up by immigration authorities in two desert stockades, an official told Reuters, adding that the relatively low number reflected the fact that "there has not yet been any major deportation campaign."
William Tall, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Israel, saw in the Netanyahu government's inaction against the Sudanese and Eritreans a de facto immunity.
"I think we all understand that if the government was capable of deporting them, it would have moved to do so long ago," Tall said.
He agreed that migration across the Israel-Egypt border had dropped off "dramatically," suggesting that among disincentives had been Cairo's recent military mobilization against jihadi groups in the Sinai.
Yonah Jeremy Bob and Reuters contributed to this report.