African migrants in Tel Aviv, Jan. 7, 2014
African migrants in Tel Aviv, Jan. 7, 2014. Photo by Moti Milrod
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As a strike by tens of thousands of African asylum seekers against Israel's migration policies entered its third day on Tuesday, Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar announced that dozens of Eritrean asylum seekers had left Israel voluntarily in recent weeks for Sweden.

The announcement did not specify the number of those who had left for Sweden. The majority were apparently women, many of whom had been victims of torture and human trafficking and who had been imprisoned in Israel for a long time.

Sweden agreed to take them in response to a special request by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and to include them in a resettlement plan, due to their special circumstances.

Tens of thousands of migrants stayed away from work Tuesday, as the strike went into its third day. Many of them gathered at Levinsky Park, in south Tel Aviv, to discuss their future action. Among the moves considered were marching toward Jerusalem, Saharonim prison and the Holot detention center in the Negev.

The protest leaders have scheduled a press conference for Tuesday afternoon, during which they are expected to announce what further steps will be taken.

The Interior Ministry said the migrants left for Sweden in the context of a government incentive scheme and were granted $3,500 each upon departure. They are encouraged to leave Israel voluntarily and to promise not to return.

An attorney dealing with residence and migration issues criticized Sa’ar’s announcement. “Asylum seekers who were sent to Sweden did not leave as part of the Ministry’s voluntary departure process, but as part of the efforts of the UNHCR to resettle people who qualify as refugees," said Oded Feller, who heads the division dealing with residence status and migration in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

"It’s not clear what the Interior Ministry take pride in. Sweden only resettles people with refugee status who are not afforded adequate protection in countries they find themselves in. The fact that Sweden took in 50 refugees proves yet again that Israel is the only country that doesn’t recognize Eritrean asylum seekers as refugees, and that other countries feel that Israel is not fulfilling its obligations under the Refugee Convention,” Feller said.

Sa'ar chose to make his announcement in the midst of the strike, despite the transferral to Sweden having occurred a few weeks ago. The announcement stated that “several dozen infiltrators from Eritrea have left for Sweden over the past few weeks, as part of a process of voluntary departure. This is the first time infiltrators were sent to Sweden. Their departure was coordinated with the Swedish government after an agreement between Interior Minister Sa’ar and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The infiltrators left voluntarily with the assistance of the Population and Immigration Authority, getting $3,500 each.”
The ministry spokesman said that in 2013, 2,612 migrants from Africa left Israel as part of this voluntary departure process. Of those, 1,955 were from Eritrea and Sudan.

The Swedish embassy declined to respond to queries by Haaretz. Nor was there a response from the UNHCR.

The three-day protest began Sunday, when tens of thousands of African migrants did not show up for work, disrupting the normal operation of many businesses, primarily restaurants, cafes, hotels, and cleaning services.

Later that day, the representative for the UNHCR in Israel published a rare press release, lambasting Israel's policy on African migrants, and in particular the new amendments to the country's anti-infiltration law.

The release, titled “Israel’s new laws and policies do not live up to the Spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention,” called on Israel to consider alternatives to its current “warehousing” of migrants.

On Monday, more than 10,000 African migrants demonstrated in front of the American embassy near the Tel Aviv promenade. Thousands more gathered in front of the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the European Commission, as the embassies of Ethiopia, Great Britain, France, Canada, Sweden, Germany and Italy.

They called on the international community to exert pressure on the Israeli government to changes its asylum seeker policies, and recognize them as refugees. In addition, the protesters called on the government to stop arresting them and to release those who are imprisoned.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that, despite the events of the past two days, he is still committed to expelling the migrants. "I'd like to make clear that protests and strikes won't help," Netanyahu said during a Likud faction meeting. "As we were able to stem the illegal infiltration of our borders, we are steadfast in our commitment to evict those who entered before we closed the border … We aren't talking about refugees with whom we deal according to international treaties; we are discussing illegal migrant workers, who will be brought to justice."

Also on Monday, Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar said he was "not very impressed with all the crying and complaining" by business owners whose employees were on strike. "With all due respect to the restaurant and café owners in crisis, or those whose cleaning staff didn't show up, this will not determine Israel's national policy. On the contrary, let's think about those Israelis who have lost their jobs [to migrant workers]."

MK Miri Regev (Likud), who heads the Knesset's Interior and Environment Committee, is promoting an amendment to the National Insurance law that would grant benefits to discharged soldiers who are employed in the restaurant industry as waiters, kitchen hands, cleaning personnel and maintenance crews. Regev said the amendment seeks to make it easier for employers to find workers to replace African migrants. The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is scheduled to discuss her proposal this coming Sunday.

Three weeks ago, the government transferred 483 African migrants who had been imprisoned in Saharonim prison to Holot. Many of them participated in the recent protest march from Holot, and were returned to Saharonim for violating the terms of their residency. Last week, the Population and Immigration Authority began instructing other migrants from Eritrea and Sudan to report to the Holot facility in 30 days, or face imprisonment.

Holot residents are forbidden from working and must report for roll call three times a day, in the morning, afternoon and evening.

Tens of thousands of Africans have trekked through neighboring countries to reach Israel in recent years. Many migrants fled oppression at home, hoping for a better life in Israel, yet their influx sparked tensions with locals who blame them for rising crime and a change of the Jewish identity in some neighborhoods.