By Gharib Suleiman
JERUSALEM (AA) - The Israeli authorities have notified African migrants and asylum seekers -- mainly those from Sudan and Eritrea -- that they have three months to leave the country or face jail time.
Last August, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Eritrean and Sudanese migrants who had not formally sought asylum in Israel could be deported to their home country or to a third country.
According to figures from Israel’s Immigration and Absorption Authority, some 55,000 African migrants and asylum-seekers currently reside in the country, roughly 90 percent of whom hail from either Sudan or Eritrea.
Most of them arrived in Israel -- via Egypt -- during the period from 2006 to 2013 before a security fence was erected along the border between Israel and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
According to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants (HRM), an Israeli NGO based in Tel Aviv, most of these migrants and asylum-seekers are concentrated in south Tel Aviv and in other cities.
“When they came here, the government gave them a one-way ticket to Tel Aviv’s central bus station,” HRM spokesperson Dror Sadot told Anadolu Agency.
Most of them have stayed in the country on “conditional release” visas, which they must renew on a monthly or bimonthly basis.
“This visa guarantees that they won’t be deported back to their countries of origin,” Sadot said. “Otherwise, they aren’t entitled to anything, including health care.”
Some 1,200 African asylum seekers, meanwhile, are currently being held in a large detention facility in southern Israel.
Built at a cost of over half a billion shekels (roughly $147 million), the Holot detention facility was set up to pressure asylum-seekers to depart the country.
Since 2012, Israel has deported about 20,000 of the roughly 60,000 African migrants who entered the country before the border fence was erected.
“If we are given the choice between detention or being homeless refugees for the rest of our lives, we choose detention,” 30-year-old Sudanese refugee Salim Kebal told Anadolu Agency.
“I came to Israel in 2010, through Egypt, after fleeing conflict, persecution and economic depression in Sudan,” he said.
“My family and I spent two months in the desert, where we suffered from a lack of water, food and security,” Kebal added.
“I had no choice,” he recalled. “We could either stay in Sudan and be killed or leave and survive.”
“Now I’m in Israel seeking refugee status because I’m tired of being afraid,” he lamented. “I want my family to live without fear of death or persecution.”
“I want to obtain refugee status in Israel so I can start a new life here with my family,” Kebal said. “But this is almost impossible since the Israeli authorities want to expel us to a third country.”
According to Israeli figures, of the 13,764 asylum applications submitted as of July of last year, only 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese national were granted official refugee status.
Israel's push to deport refugees appears to be without precedent. No other country has sought to send asylum-seekers to third countries through agreements that are not subject to judicial or public scrutiny.
Last week, the website of the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority carried an advertisement seeking "inspectors" to work for its asylum-request department.
According to the advertisement, the authority hopes to hire 100 inspectors by March tasked with locating, monitoring and detaining undocumented immigrants.
Of these 100 inspectors, roughly two dozen will work for a “voluntary repatriation” program by which refugees would be offered a modest cash payout -- $3,500 -- to leave the country voluntarily.
"Now I’m afraid that, one day, the police -- or those they are calling ‘inspectors’ -- will force me and my family to leave,” Kebal, the Sudanese refugee, said.
“I have been told by some of those to have voluntary returned to their home countries -- or to a third country -- that they are now suffering persecution and poverty,” he added.
According to media reports, Israel and Rwanda recently signed an agreement by which the latter would take in some 10,000 refugees from Israel in return for which the Rwandan government would receive $5,000 for every refugee it absorbed.
Olivier Nduhungirehe, Rwanda’s minister of state for foreign affairs, however, has denied the reports, insisting that his country had “no deal whatsoever” to take in African refugees from Israel.
“Let me be clear: Rwanda will never receive any African migrant who is deported [from his/her host country] against his/her will,” Nduhungirehe tweeted.
Rwanda’s “open door” policy, he said, “only applies to those who come to Rwanda voluntary without any form of constraint”.
On Sunday, Israeli daily Haaretz quoted Shlomo Mor-Yosef, head of the Immigration and Absorption Authority, as saying that only single Sudanese and Eritrean men deemed “economic migrants” faced the possibility of deportation.
Women and children, he said, would be allowed to remain in the country.
The HRM’s Sadot, for her part, said: “In light of the refugee situation that Europe -- and all countries of the world -- is dealing with, Israel should not ignore its international and moral obligations.”
She went on to praise what she described as “an awakening on the part of Israeli citizens who are telling the government that it has crossed a red line”.
“With the help of the public and through legal and international efforts,” Sadot asserted, “we’ll be able to thwart this scandalous move.”
She added: “I also hope people outside Israel will condemn this policy and work to limit the government's delusional and racist attempts to expel refugees to other countries in Africa.”