Netanyahu Pushes for Forced Expulsion of African Asylum Seekers

Israel looking into alternative plan for forced deportation over fear that indefinite incarceration of asylum seekers would cause space shortage in state prisons and would come at a large financial cost to Israel

A protest in Tel Aviv against the government decision to deport asylum seekers, December 29, 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday instructed National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat to examine a plan for the forcible expulsion of African asylum seekers. 

To date, some of the possibilities examined have included encouraging deportation by providing financial grants, while also threatening indefinite imprisonment. Following a request from Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, however, it was decided to examine the possibility that Israel may expel asylum seekers by force - accompanied on a flight by immigration inspectors, and perhaps even handcuffed.

The need to formulate an alternative plan arose due to the fear that indefinite incarceration would lead to a shortage of space in state prisons and would come at a large financial cost to Israel.

On Wednesday, the cabinet was presented with a plan that it approved to expel African asylum seekers from Israel. The Population and Immigration Authority will call upon Eritrean and Sudanese citizens in the country to leave Israel within three months if they are to avoid possible detention for an indefinite period.

The Population Authority has announced that as of April, enforcement action will begin against those who are being required to leave and against their employers. Asylum seekers who don't leave will be placed in detention and their employers will be fined. As reported in Haaretz last week, the $3,500 government grant that has been given to those leaving the country will be gradually reduced from the beginning of April.

The cabinet resolution also included the revocation of a prior resolution that set up the Holot detention center in southern Israel so that the funds could now be directed at salaries for about 160 Population Authority inspectors as well as about 150 million shekels ($43 million) for financial incentives to encourage the migrants to leave.

In practice, the resolution will place the financial responsibility for carrying out the plan in the hands of the Public Security Ministry rather than the Interior Ministry, of which the Population Authority is a part. Erdan has expressed the hope that now the plan, which had been developed three years ago but had been found illegal by the High Court of Justice, will be completed. Holot had cost about 250 million shekels a year to run.

At the beginning of the cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "The infiltrators have a simple choice. Either cooperate with us and leaving voluntarily, respectably, humanely and legally, or we will have to make use of the other means at our disposal, which are also in accordance with the law. I hope they choose to cooperate.

"Every country has an obligation to protect its borders," Netanyahu said. "Protecting the borders from illegal infiltration is both the right and the fundamental obligation of a sovereign country. For this purpose, we have taken two good steps.”

Netanyahu added that "the first step is building [border] fences, a barrier against massive infiltration into Israel from Africa. Now comes the second task of removing the illegal infiltrators who have illegally entered Israel before the barrier was established. This involves about 60,000 people. We have removed about 20,000 and now the task is to remove the others."

"Over the past year, we have removed about 4,000 and [have made a] major effort to substantially remove the majority of those remaining," Netanyahu continued. "We will step up enforcement and we will devote funds and personnel to carrying out the plan. I think it's important that people understand that we are doing something entirely legal here, entirely essential."

In November, Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said that her country was prepared to accept about 20,000 African asylum seekers from Israel if they felt comfortable coming to her country. At the time, she said that Rwanda and Israel had not finalized an agreement on the matter and that negotiations were continuing on issues such as the responsibility for the well-being of refugees once they arrive. She reiterated, however, that Rwanda was prepared to accept them.

Until now, it had only been in exceptional cases that Israel had expelled foreigners by force and against their will. In these cases, after their continued refusal to leave Israel, the foreigners have been accompanied by inspectors from the Population and Immigration Authority, who even went onto the flights with them to their country of origin. Only in rare cases were those being expelled cuffed. Airlines were hesitant to cooperate with expulsion in this manner on commercial flights, in part also out of concern of disturbances on the flight. A policy change in a manner leading to mass expulsion by force may require major manpower and complicated coordination with the airlines.