Israel has notified thousands of Africans who entered the country irregularly that they have three months to leave or face incarceration.
The Population and Immigration Authority of Israel on Tuesday (2 January) issued a notice to about 40,000 refugees, most of them from Sudan and Eritrea, to leave the country.
Those who leave by the end of March will be given US$3,500, along with airfare and other incentives. They will be given the option of going to their home country or third countries, meaning Rwanda or Uganda. If they do not leave, the Israeli authorities have threatened that they will start jailing them from April.
The order exempts children, elderly people, and victims of slavery and human trafficking.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR said the controversial plan violated international and Israeli laws. The Hotline for Migrant Workers, an advocacy group in Israel, has condemned the move, saying expulsions “put the refugees’ lives in danger.”
Thousands of Africans entered Israel before it erected a fence along its border with Egypt. Many say they fled conflict and persecution and seek refugee status. Israel calls them “infiltrators” and says they are mostly economic migrants whose numbers threaten its Jewish character.
Meanwhile, a coalition of US Jewish groups has urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the deportation plans, offering to assist in caring for the Africans.
“We are concerned that if you move forward with these plans the lives of thousands of individuals will be put in jeopardy, and the name of the Jewish State and the Jewish People will be irreparably stained,” said the letter by the 25 groups.
“As a people who were once refugees, and were once strangers in a strange land, we believe we have a special obligation toward refugees, whatever their religion or race,” said the letter, whose signatories spanned every religious stream, including Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Humanist.
Sola Jolaoso with agencies