African migrants facing deportation sought work, not refuge, Netanyahu says

African migrants protesting outside the Holot detention center in southern Israel, Feb. 17, 2014. (Flash90)

African migrants protesting outside the Holot detention centre in southern Israel, Feb. 17, 2014. (Flash90)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he plans to go ahead with plans to deport tens of thousands African migrants to Israel despite protests, including from an array of U.S. Jewish groups.

“We are not acting against refugees. We are acting against illegal migrants who come here not as refugees but for work needs. Israel will continue to offer asylum for genuine refugees and will remove illegal migrants from its midst,” Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

In recent weeks, major American Jewish groups have called on Netanyahu not to carry out his plan deport or jail the tens of thousands of migrants. Human rights groups and Israeli NGOs have also spoken out against the plan.

Netanyahu stressed that Israel has made arrangements with a third country that “assures the personal security of those who leave here.”

“They receive permits for housing, work and the chance to integrate into the country,” he also said. While both Uganda and Rwanda are reported to be the third countries, they have denied such an agreement.

Advocates for the African migrants have said that those who have been deported have faced robbery, kidnapping and worse after their arrival.

Netanyahu stressed that the migrants “receive significant financial assistance from us. Do not forget that Israel invests considerable capital while they are here and for their passage to the third country.”

He concluded: “The processes that I am describing have been approved by the legal establishment and are under the ongoing supervision of the official representatives of Israel and the third country. At the same time, I have the allocation to the Interior Ministry, which the government has approved, of a special budgetary supplement to expedite the examination of requests for asylum in Israel. This policy is in complete compliance with the directives of the Supreme Court and international law; therefore, there is no basis to the claims being made against us.”

Most of the African migrants are from countries in turmoil or with repressive governments. Israel has granted asylum to fewer than 1 percent of the migrants. Israeli and American advocates for the migrants note that other western countries receiving similar populations have a much higher rate of granting refugee status.

The Population and Immigration Authority in Israel notified migrants from Sudan and Eritrea that as of Jan. 1 they must return to their own countries, or to the unidentified third nation or be jailed until they are deported. Migrants who chose to leave by March 31 will receive a payment of $3,500 as well as free airfare and other incentives.

AFP earlier this month quoted the Israeli group ASSAF, or Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, as saying thousands of African migrants deported from Israel previously have arrived in Uganda, making the country’s denial suspect.

Israel has already deported 20,000 of the some 60,000 African migrants who entered Israel prior to the construction of a barrier on its southern border with the Sinai.

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