Over the course of January, 773 African migrants willfully returned to their home countries, agreeing to leave Israel and take a $3,500 stipend, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said on Wednesday.
“This trend is a direct result of our clear policies and the combined efforts we have carried out,” Sa’ar (Likud Beytenu) said on Wednesday, addressing the numbers during a visit to the Holot detention facility in the Negev.
The “combined efforts” include increasing the onetime stipend for returnees from $1,500 to $3,500, heightened enforcement against Israelis illegally employing migrants, implementation of the amendment to the anti-infiltration law, and the opening of the Holot detention facility.
Israel has also passed regulations banning the amount of money migrants can send out of the country.
Population, Immigration and Borders Authority figures show a sharp rise in voluntary returns in the past few months. In December, 325 migrants voluntarily returned, according to PIBA, and in November, 63. In all of 2013 there was a total of 2,612, according to PIBA.
The issue of “voluntary returns” is controversial, with migrants and their supporters, as well as NGOs that deal with the migrant issue, arguing that no return can be considered voluntary if the only alternative is detention and the inability to legally work.
Sa’ar’s statement came the same week that the first migrants from Israeli cities were taken to the Holot facility, which can hold some 3,300 detainees.
On Sunday, 26 migrants arrived as their 30-day deadline to report to the facility expired. They were part of a group of 63 that had been given summons to report.
Last month some 1,900 African migrants received notices that they must report to the facility.
Also on Sunday, a delegation from the Knesset’s Foreign Workers Committee visited Holot.
“Like we thought, the open facility gives a strong impression of a prison,” chairwoman Michal Rozin (Meretz) said after the visit. Committee member MK Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) said the visit made her proud “to be a citizen of Israel, which provides for all of the humanitarian needs of those residing in the facility.”
On Wednesday, a second group of migrants answered summonses and made their way to Holot.
The Hotline for Refugee and Migrants said detainees at the facility were “reporting that they do not receive enough food; they lack adequate medical care and a sense of great despair prevails among them. This is exactly the purpose of the law, as stated by the minister of interior and other officials – to drive the detainees into despair, thus pressuring them to ‘agree’ to be deported to their homelands to which they cannot be deported by force due to the high likelihood that they will be detained, tortured and even killed there.”
On Tuesday, the Prisons Service reported a violent incident at the facility during which a warden was attacked by an inmate. However, migrants at the facility reported violence on the part of the guards. The incident is under investigation by police stationed at the facility, the service said on Wednesday.