Thousands of Asylum Seekers to Be Given 90 Days to Leave Israel or Face Prison

People who have applied for refugee status but have not received a response will be allowed to stay, for now

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African asylum seekers at Israel's Saharonim detention center.
African asylum seekers at Israel's Saharonim detention center.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Thousands of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan will soon be told to leave Israel within three months or face prison. The Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority has begun this month preparing to deport these asylum seekers, on the orders of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Interior Minister Arye Dery and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.

The cabinet vote on the deportation campaign has been postponed due to a budgetary dispute between the treasury and the Public Security Ministry.

In the first stage, certain groups will be exempted from deportation: children, adults over 60, parents of minor children who rely on them for support, those with serious medical or mental health problems and victims of human trafficking and slavery. Individuals in these groups are exempt from being sent to the Holot detention facility in the Negev.

People who have applied for refugee status but have not received a response will also be allowed to stay, for now.

Thousands of other African migrants who entered Israel illegally and who have been detained at Holot in the past, or who meet the criteria for detention there, will receive notification that they must leave Israel within three months the next time they go to Interior Ministry offices to renew their residency permits or face indefinite imprisonment. Barring changes to the law, Holot is scheduled for closure in less than three months.

There are an estimated 27,000 citizens of Eritrea living in Israel, as well as 7,500 Sudanese nationals and 2,500 people from other African nations. Some 5,000 children have been born to African asylum seekers in Israel.

Netanyahu has told Interior Ministry officials that he expects many of these people to leave Israel within a short period.

The Interior Ministry estimates the total cost of its deportation operation at some 300 million shekels ($86 million) a year. This includes wages of Interior Ministry employees, deportation flights and money given to those who leave. For now, every asylum seeker who leaves the country will receive $3,500, but this amount will be reduced in the future.

The actual cost to the state will depends on the program’s success, or lack thereof. The estimates do not include the cost of detention for asylum seekers who refuse to leave Israel. This is the major cause of the dispute between the finance and public security ministries. The latter says it was not consulted in advance on the plan.

The Israel Prison Service, which is under the Public Security Ministry, estimates that hundreds of African asylum seekers will have to be jailed in the Saharonim detention center, an expensive proposition.

On Wednesday, representatives of the Interior Ministry told the Knesset Finance Committee it spent 68 million shekels to remove 4,500 African asylum seekers from Israel in the past year. This money went for airplane tickets and the cash grants. Haaretz has found that the actual number was just under 4,000, meaning the state spent about 17,000 shekels for every African asylum seeker who left, whether to their country of origin, to Uganda, or a Western country.

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