Israel will soon begin a process to get African migrants in the country illegally to leave Israel for two unnamed third-party countries, the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority said on Tuesday.
Those who don’t agree to be “voluntarily deported” to their home countries or a third country could face imprisonment, it added.
In its statement, PIBA said that Interior Minister Gilad Erdan “has formulated a process that will begin in the coming days to expand the voluntary return of infiltrators to a third country.”
At present, there are around 2,000 migrants at the Holot detention facility in the Negev, out of a population of around 42,000 Eritrean and Sudanese citizens in the country.
According to PIBA, migrants who are selected for “voluntary deportation” will have 30 days to get ready to leave the country, and those who refuse will face a hearing on whether to imprison them.
The issue of voluntary deportation is a controversial one in that those who don’t agree to leave face continued detention in Israel. For the past few years, Israel has maintained a policy of encouraging deportation – through the threat of detention, but also through “positive incentives” like a one-time stipend.
According to PIBA figures, since the beginning of 2014, around 1,500 migrants have agreed to be deported to a third-party country in Africa, and around 7,000 have agreed to return to their home countries.
PIBA said Tuesday that Israel had reached agreements with two African countries that were willing to absorb the migrants – though it did not specify which countries those were – and that had also agreed not to deport them to their home countries.
The statement said that in the first stage of the plan, representatives from PIBA would go to Holot and determine which group of detainees should be the first to leave Israel, and which still had asylum requests pending. Those who did not have pending requests would be informed of all of the aspects of their return and receive information about the country to which they would be moving. The state would also provide them with air fare, a hotel and an unspecified stipend.
Erdan (Likud) said in a statement Tuesday that “this process will encourage infiltrators to leave the territory of Israel in a safe and respectful way, and will be an effective tool to carry out our obligations to help residents of Israel and south Tel Aviv restore the way of life they were used to.”
The statement added that Erdan was working to ensure that “the basic principles of the new government will include the completion of the extraction of infiltrators from Israel and their return to their countries or other countries, with the goal of getting life in south Tel Aviv back on course.”
However, a series of NGOs slammed the new initiative in a joint statement. Among them were the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Kav LaOved, ASSAF – an aid organization for refugees and asylum-seekers in Israel – and Amnesty International.
“The initiative of the Ministry of Interior exposes what we’ve all known before – there is no such thing as ‘voluntary departure,’” they wrote. “The decision of the Minister of Interior and attorney- general removes the disguises the state employed before and makes it clear that Israel will work to deport asylum-seekers in any way possible, including illegal ones. The transfer of asylum-seekers to other countries without agreements and detailed commitments that ensure that asylum-seekers will be protected is illegal.”
The NGOs added that they had compiled testimonies from deported migrants who said that Uganda and Rwanda were not safe destination countries. Migrants had their money taken upon landing and were not protected from deportation to their home countries, they said.
“The government should divulge the agreements it made with Uganda and Rwanda, and reveal the guarantees for the safety of asylum-seekers the agreement provides, and what was given to those counties in return for accepting Israel’s unwanted asylum-seekers,” the statement demanded.
MK Michal Rozin (Meretz), head of the Knesset committee dealing with foreign workers, called for the state to disclose the details of the deal with the third-party countries.
“As a member of the Knesset, it is my responsibility to demand that the state reveal the agreement reached with Rwanda and Uganda,” she said. “Already for two years, I have demanded that these deals be disclosed, but the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee prevents it.”
She added that Israel must make sure the returns occurred in collaboration with authorities from the UN and in keeping with international agreements Israel had signed.
Israel “must not continue to jail innocent people without charge,” she said.
The plan was greeted warmly, however, by EITAN – the Center for Israeli Immigration Policy, which said Tuesday that “every country has rights, also under international law, to expel infiltrators from its territory as long as they are certain that they do not face the danger of death.”
It added that it hoped the move would be “genuine good news for the people of Israel, and south Tel Aviv in particular.”