Israel is preparing to start a large-scale campaign to pressure immigrants from Sudan and Eritrea to voluntarily leave the country after the September holidays, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced on Wednesday.
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According to Sa'ar, the measure comes in the wake of a third country’s agreement to take in the immigrants or serve as a transit point on the way back to their countries of origin. Sa’ar said that Hagai Hadas, the prime minister’s special envoy, had obtained the third country’s consent, which was approved recently by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.
The minister made the announcement during a meeting of the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee.
“In the first stage, we will focus on raising awareness within the population of infiltrators while helping them with the logistics of their departure, including costs, airfare and dealing with the possessions they accumulated while they were in Israel,” Sa’ar said.
During the second stage, which will begin after the upcoming Jewish holidays, the state will set a deadline by which "certain sectors within the infiltrator population" will be asked to "willingly" leave the country.
Sa’ar added that Israel would take measures against those who refused to leave; once the deadline passes, the state will stop issuing extensions on visas and will begin enforcing laws that prohibit the employment of illegal migrants.
Sa’ar said that the plan would lead to the departure of thousands of migrants over the next year. “I expect the infiltrators leave at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 per year,” he said. “I am certain that it will reach much greater numbers after the plan involving the third country gains momentum. I remind you that there are 55,000.”
He said that the state would encourage migrants held at detention centers and those living in cities to agree to the voluntary repatriation.
Knesset Member Michal Rosin (Meretz) leveled criticism at the plan.
"The interior minister's comments expose the government's true intention: to transfer all asylum seekers in Israel to an unknown third country, the agreement with which is classified," she said.
"There is no such thing as voluntary deportation when the alternative is the threat of jail and persecution by the authorities," she added. "… As a country that has signed the UN convention on refugees, it is our duty to make sure we are not forcing asylum seekers to return to danger zones."
Human rights groups in Israel said on Monday that a campaign is in violation of United Nations policy.
Lawyers for the Hotline for Migrant Workers sent a letter to the Justice Ministry, documenting alleged abuses by Interior Ministry employees of the return policy. In a letter to Deputy Attorney General Dina Silber, attorneys Asaf Weitzen and Nimrod Avigal claimed that jailed migrants are being told they will not be granted refugee status in Israel and will remain in custody unless they sign the forms consenting to leave the country.
Some 200 African nationals have returned under the voluntary repatriation procedure for migrants from Eritrea and Sudan since Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein approved the initiative in the end of June. According to the United Nations and human rights organizations, incarcerated individuals are by definition incapable of consenting freely to leave a country and therefore they should not be repatriated even if they sign consent forms.
The committee on Wednesday approved regulations that forbid African migrants from sending money and property abroad. The rules stipulate that upon their departure, the migrants will be able to take with them funds and property worth the minimum monthly wage multiplied by the number of months they spent in Israel. Larger sums would require special approval from the border authorities. If such permission is not granted, the state may seize the excess assets.
According to Interior Minister Sa'ar, the regulations are meant to deter migrants from seeking entry into Israel.