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Israel to close migrant detention facility and deport thousands to Africa

African migrants pour out of the Holot Detention Centre in Israel's Negev desert after their release on August 25, 2015
Menahem Kahana (AFP)
Israel has signed deals with Rwanda and Uganda to accept consenting departing migrants

Israel's cabinet voted on Sunday to close the Holot migrant detention center in southern Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced an agreement to deport 40,000 Africans who entered the country illegally despite concerns about their fate. 

Ministers unanimously approved plans to shutter the detention facility and gave migrants a three-month deadline to leave the country or face deportation, the interior and public security ministries said.

It is widely reported that the migrants will be deported to Rwanda, although the government has not confirmed this. 

"The infiltrators will have the option to be imprisoned or leave the country," the public security ministry said in a statement. Israeli official figures from June 30 show a total of 38,043 African migrants in the country.

They include 27,494 Eritreans and 7,869 Sudanese, and their presence in south Tel Aviv has raised discontent among Israelis there and elsewhere.

A deal is reportedly in the process of being thrashed out with Rwanda to accept deportees. The country's authoritarian president Paul Kagame has already taken thousands of "voluntary" returnees from Israel, under the auspices of a murky agreement that has never been made public. 

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Speaking ahead of Sunday's vote, Netanyahu noted that after building a fence on the Egyptian border and deporting some 20,000 African migrants through deals -- widely known to be with Rwanda and Uganda -- Israel has reached the third stage of its efforts, which he termed "accelerated removal".

"This removal is taking place thanks to an international agreement I reached that enables us to remove the 40,000 infiltrators remaining, remove them without their consent," he told ministers. "This will enable us to close down Holot and allocate some of the large funds going there to inspectors and removing more people."

Holot, an open facility in the desert that can host 1,200 migrants who are allowed to leave to work during the day, would be closed three months from December 16, according to the decision, although an extension is possible. 

Haaretz newspaper reported that the facility's shuttering would depend on the successful implementation of the deportations to Rwanda. 

The Population and Immigration Authority, who are in charge of implementing the new policies, did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation. 

On Friday the UN refugee agency said they are worried by the fate of migrants who will be forcibly transferred to the small African state, saying in a statement that many of those who have already gone "have not found adequate safety or a durable solution to their plight and that many have subsequently attempted dangerous onward movements within Africa or to Europe."

Many of those who have taken the "Rwanda option" in recent years told activists that they were whisked through the country's international airport without their passports being stamped, and put up in a hotel before being shuttled into Uganda in the dead of the night. 

AFP/Menachem Kahana)

"Instead of turning away the handful of refugees within its territory, Israel can and should protect asylum seekers like other countries of the world, instead of imprisoning them or deporting them to continue a journey of refugees," a statement from several Israeli human rights groups on Thursday read. 

Ahead of Sunday's vote, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said Holot had become "a hotel for infiltrators at the tax-payers' expense that does not encourage their exit" and costs 240 million shekels ($68 million, 58 million euros) a year.

In a Twitter statement, Erdan however stressed the closure of Holot was conditioned on "us seeing that the policy of removing infiltrators to a third country was indeed taking place."

Israel tacitly recognizes the Sudanese and Eritreans cannot be returned to their often dangerous homelands, so it has signed deals with Rwanda and Uganda, which agree to accept departing migrants on condition they consent to the arrangement, according to activists.

(Staff with AFP)

Comments

(1)

Just a small correction - the asylum seekers who are detained in Holot are definitely NOT allowed to leave to work during the day, and are given 16 nis (4€) a day as pocket money, which is a very small amount that is not even enough for a one-way ticket to the nearest city Be'er Sheva. Not being able to work is causing a lot of the detainees' distress.

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