Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his ministers to accelerate efforts to deport citizens of South Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Ethiopia who are living in Israel illegally on Sunday.
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Speaking at Sunday's cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that while it is not possible to expel citizens of Eritrea and Sudan, whose lives would be at risk in their home countries, holding facilities for them must be built in the Negev as quickly as possible.
A senior Israeli official said that two different groups of migrants were presented during Sunday's cabinet debate. The first was migrants from countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations, and with regard to whom there is no barrier to repatriating them under international law, he said. This group numbers some 25,000 of the approximately 60,000 African migrants now in Israel.
The second group comprises migrants from Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia, who cannot be repatriated because their lives would be at risk, according to the official. This group comprises some 35,000 people.
Sudan is classified as an enemy country, another reason that migrants can't be returned there, he said, while Eritrea, though it has diplomatic relations with Israel, considers those who fled the country to be AWOL soldiers, and upon their return home they could be severely punished. Eritrea has a mandatory conscription law for all men aged 17-45, and demands reserve duty up to age 55. There are no exemptions.
With regard to the first group of migrants, Netanyahu said, "Whoever can be sent away should be sent away from here as quickly as possible."
With regard to the second group, he said, "It's clear that we cannot return Sudanis and Eritreans to their countries."
During the cabinet debate, Netanyahu appeared impatient and dissatisfied with the conduct of the relevant ministries and banged on the table several times, according to sources who were present. He ordered a substantial expansion of the Saharonim lockup in the Negev so that it could hold the tens of thousands of people who can't be repatriated.
He also ordered a team of interrogators put together to interview all those who will be brought to the Saharonim facility to determine whether they are indeed entitled to refugee status.
The Foreign Ministry has been conducting intensive discussions for several months with the governments of those countries whose citizens can be repatriated, a senior ministry source said.
For example, Israel is exerting heavy pressure on Ethiopia to begin returning its citizens who are in Israel illegally. Ethiopian diplomats have visited the Saharonim facility and interviewed Ethiopian nationals.
The Foreign Ministry has also been in regular contact with South Sudan, whose nationals are being given a chance to return voluntarily. On June 17 a plane carrying some 200 South Sudanese will fly from Israel to Juba, the South Sudan capital. In mid-July there will be another plane of South Sudanese who agreed to leave but asked to do so after the school year ends.
A senior Foreign Ministry source said that Israel has made it clear to countries like the Ivory Coast and Ghana that the government plans to deport their nationals, by force if necessary, and that if their governments don't issue the migrants travel documents, then Israel will do so.
"We told them, 'Either we do this together, or we will just put them on planes by ourselves,'" the senior official said.
The Foreign Ministry also said that over the past five years it has approached third countries to ascertain whether any of them would be willing to accept refugees from Eritrea or Sudan. Israeli diplomats were in touch with 30 African countries and 10 Western countries but were categorically refused.
"All the African states and many European ones are dealing with the same problem," a senior source said. "Everyone to whom we addressed a request slammed the door in our faces."