TEL AVIV – Israel on Wednesday said illegal African migrants would be paid to leave the country to the tune of thousands of dollars per head or else face imprisonment.
In a cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to draft a plan to forcibly expel migrants who do not leave of their own will, even while ministers approved a plan to imprison them. Haaretz newspaper reported that Netanyahu’s request stemmed from concerns that prisons may become overcrowded.
“The infiltrators have a simple choice — to cooperate with us and leave voluntarily, along a respectable, humanitarian and legal path — or we will have to use the other tools available to us, also according to the law. I hope they will choose to cooperate with us,” Netanyahu said.
“Every country must maintain its borders, and protecting the borders from illegal infiltration is both a right and a basic duty of a sovereign state,” he added.
The prime minister also noted that a barrier along the border with Egypt, completed some five years ago, has stymied the stream of migrants illegally entering the country, which by then had reached more than 60,000.
The Population and Immigration Authority has given Eritrean and Sudanese nationals three months to leave Israel to avoid detention. They will be offered a $3,500 financial stipend as well as an air ticket to “third countries,” reportedly including Rwanda and Uganda, in case it is too dangerous to return to their home countries.
“We have expelled about 20,000 and now the mission is to get the rest out,” Netanyahu said.
According to an unnamed immigration official, there are some 38,000 illegal migrants living in Israel and close to 1,500 in two detention centers.
“Beyond the end of March, those who leave voluntarily will receive a significantly smaller payment that will shrink even more with time and enforcement measures will begin,” the official said, in reference to detention.
Migrant aid worker Adi Drori-Avraham told AFP that at the moment there are exceptions for women, children, parents of children and victims of human trafficking, but that such exemptions are only temporary.
In his remarks on Wednesday, Netanyahu said that the Africans in some of Tel Aviv’s poorer neighborhoods were threatening locals who “no longer feel they are safe.”
“So today, we are keeping our promise to restore calm, a sense of personal security and law and order to the residents of south Tel Aviv and those in many other neighborhoods,” he said.