Thousands of African asylum seekers stage protest
Thousands of African asylum seekers during their recent protest Photo by AFP
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A record 1,705 African asylum seekers left Israel in February, Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar announced Thursday. He also predicted that the wave of departures would continue in the coming months.

“This figure for the last month surprises me for the better,” Sa'ar said at a conference of Population and Immigration Authority directors in Ashkelon. “If the trend we identify continues, and I’ve been informed that it will continue into March, there will be a departure of enormous proportions from Israel this year. It is most important.”

February’s figure represents about 3% of the estimated number of African asylum seekers in Israel. The monthly figures have grown since November, from 63 to 325 in December and 765 in January.

“We stood up to constant propaganda insinuating there were tens of thousands of asylum seekers, even though you know that a tiny percentage of them submitted asylum requests,” said Sa'ar. “This whole theory collapsed in the last months when it turned out there was a large exodus of those who came for economic reasons and figured that in a day or two he would no longer be able to work and earn money, so we see a definitive change in direction.”

Sa'ar showed the statistics on a placard headlined “Voluntary departure data – illegal infiltrators” to make his point. Each African asylum seeker who leaves Israel through the end of next month is entitled to a $3,500 government grant.

Sa'ar also denied claims by opponents of the government’s policy who say the numbers reflect undue pressure being put on the detainees in the Holot or Saharonim detention centers, noting that the government is operating according to guidelines set by the attorney general. He also said the statistics refute the critics because 96% of the people leaving the country are from the cities and only 4% from the detention centers, arguing the numbers show that the critical mass of people leave when there are no job prospects in the offing.

Answering a question from Haaretz, Sa'ar said only a handful was leaving for a third country rather than their country of origin, without going into detail. Last week, Haaretz published an article that Israel started flying African asylum seekers in secret to Uganda last month. At least seven Sudanese detained in Saharonim were on the flight. The state did not inform the UN High Commissioner for Refugees of the Uganda flight. The UN does not recognize the concept of detainees making a free choice.

The Population and Immigration Authority declined to comment for this story.

It remains unclear what, if any, agreement was made with Uganda. The Jewish-American Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society contacted the director of refugee affairs in the Ugandan prime minister’s office, and he responded that he did not know of any arrangement with Israel.

A spokesperson for the refugee and migrant hotline commented that the host of measures taken by the state to embitter the lives of human beings seeking defense and to pressure them to return to where they are exposed to danger is shameful and enraging. “The data which the Interior Ministry touts is a badge of poverty for Israel and not a source of pride,” the spokesperson added.