Refugees near Eilat Reuters  24.11.2010
A group of men being detained by the army after crossing illegally into Israel from Egypt, Nov. 24, 2010. Photo by Reuters
Text size

A cabinet decision on Sunday approving a plan to hold and deport thousands of illegal migrant workers drew the ire of rights groups, who called the plan a disgrace on the State of Israel and said such a move would do nothing to halt the stream of infiltrators crossing over from Sinai.

Israel's cabinet approved on Sunday a plan to hold and deport thousands of illegal migrant workers whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as a "threat to the character of the country."

In remarks to the cabinet, Netanyahu said thousands of migrants who have entered Israel mainly through Egypt in past years would be housed at a special holding facility, due to be built in Israel's southern Negev desert.

"We must stop the mass entry of illegal migrant workers because of the very serious threat to the character and future to the State of Israel," he said, adding Israelis who gave them work would face severe fines to make their employment not viable.

Netanyahu said, however, that migrants fleeing persecution would be allowed to stay. "We do not intend to stop refugees fleeing for their lives, we allow them in and will continue to do so," he said.

Responding to Netanyahu's plan later Sunday, Physicians for Human Rights severely criticized the cabinet's decision:"That victims of torture, rape, war and genocide are to be imprisoned indefinitely, without the supervision of a judicial authority and against the international treaty on the protection of refugees is a stain of shame on the State of Israel."

"This plan will not only fail in stopping refugees from crossing over from the Sinai," the group said, but "will exacerbate the plight of the refugees, damaging their health and further hurting their already unstable mental state."

"We call upon the government of Israel to halt the turbulence that had taken hold of it, and weigh humane solutions for the absorption of refugees in a profound and civilized manner," the rights group added.

The Hotline for Migrant Workers and the Association for Civil Rights and Israel also issued a joint statement following the cabinet's decision, saying that it was unclear "in light of the severe conditions which asylum seekers currently undergo in the Ketziot Military Prison Camp, how Israel can erect a much larger detention center without causing a humanitarian disaster and a disgrace."

"It is high time that Israel formulate an orderly immigration policy and maintain a mechanism determining who is a refugee and who isn’t. In that way it can give those recognized as refugees their rights," the rights groups said.

At the cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu addressed possible criticism of the plan, saying that his government, as opposed to previous adminstrations, was actively dealing with the growing problem.

"We have begun construction of a barrier in the south and we will fine employers [who hire illegal migrants]…. We must provide the infiltrators with humane conditions until their deportations," said Netanyahu.

The government was also expected Sunday to vote on new regulations to make determining refugee status more efficient. These rules will be applied when the non-security-related infiltrators seek asylum in Israel.