Jerusalem: Israel has reached an agreement to send thousands of African migrants to an unidentified country, according to a court document obtained, a plan that has elicited criticism over its potential harm to the migrants.
The plan, if implemented, is an attempt to address one of Israel`s more pressing issues: what to do with an influx of roughly 60,000 African migrants who have sneaked into Israel from Egypt over the past eight years.
Their arrivals have put Israel in a bind. Many Israelis believe that the Jewish state, founded in part as a refuge for Holocaust survivors after World War II, has a responsibility to help the downtrodden.
But others fear that taking in tens of thousands of Africans will threaten the country`s Jewish character and question the extent of Israel`s moral obligations beyond those of other nations.
Most of the migrants have come from Eritrea or Sudan, some fleeing repressive regimes and others looking for work.
Over the past year, Israel has taken a series of steps to halt the influx. It built a fence along the border with Egypt that has reduced the number of new arrivals from hundreds each month to just a trickle.
Since last summer, it has imprisoned new arrivals while officials determine whether they meet the criteria for refugee status. Last year, Israel offered some migrants cash to leave voluntarily, warning they would be expelled otherwise.
Thousands of Africans still live in slums in Tel Aviv and other cities. Israel has been unable to deport most of them because they would face harm if they returned to their countries of origin.
According to the document, a state lawyer told the Israeli Supreme Court on Sunday that a deal was reached with an unidentified country to absorb some migrants and that Israel was in talks with two other countries to secure a similar agreement.
The details of the arrangement were not disclosed, although the state`s lawyer, Yochi Gnesin, said the return of migrants would be "gradual."
Yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voted in favour of a bill prohibiting migrants from removing money from the country before their final departure.
"We have stopped the infiltration phenomenon into Israel. Last month only two infiltrators entered Israel, compared to more than 2,000 a year ago. Now we are focused on the infiltrators leaving," he said in a statement.
Critics said the deal reflects an abdication of responsibility by Israel and that Israel will not be able to properly monitor the migrants` conditions once they are deported.
Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, states are obligated not to send refugees to countries where they would face physical or political danger.
The Supreme Court on Sunday ordered the government to provide details of the arrangement, including the name of the African country, within seven days.