Israel is trying to find ways of repatriating or relocating African migrant workers whose illegal influx via Egypt is alarming authorities, a senior government official said.
Thousands of Africans, many of them from conflict zones such as Sudan and Eritrea, have slipped in across Egypt’s Sinai desert in recent years to seek work or claim asylum as refugees.
Mindful of their country’s foundation as a haven for persecuted Jews, some Israelis are resistant to debating whether the migrants should stay. Others see a demographic threat to a Jewish state whose population numbers just over 7 million, Reuters reports.
Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser told Israel Radio the rate of infiltration had almost doubled to a projected 9,000 migrants in 2010. He termed it “an astounding, alarming rise” and said the government was considering new remedies.
“We are the only country in the Western world that you can reach from Africa on foot, without obstacles, without limitation, with a very warm welcome,” Hauser said.
Having authorised the construction of a fence along stretches of the 266-km (166-mile) Egyptian border, Israel was also “examining the transfer of these people to other intake countries that would be willing to absorb them”, Hauser said.
Asked about an Israeli media report that the government might offer payment to African countries to take back the migrants, he said: “This matter is being discussed intensively. But there are no answers or data yet.”
According to Hauser, barely 1 percent of the migrants warrant consideration a asylum-seekers, a figure disputed by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
UNHCR official William Tall said Israel grants “refugee-like status” — temporary and short of formal asylum — to the Sudanese and Eritreans who make up about 90 percent of migrants.
Sudan, whose government has been waging a counter-insurgency campaign in the Darfur region for seven years, is technically at war with Israel, making repatriation talks impossible. Tall said Israel adhered to a UNHCR recommendation against returning Eritrean emigrants, despite having diplomatic ties with Asmara.
Under Israeli pressure to secure the Sinai border, where there is also drug-smuggling and gun-running and occasional infiltration attempts by pro-Palestinian guerrillas, Egypt has employed tough tactics, including shooting migrants on sight.
That has discouraged Israeli authorities from forcing migrants to return to Egyptian territory, officials say.
The idea of relocating the migrants as described by Hauser is familiar to the UNHCR, Tall said, “but we would want to find out more before we take a position”.
Official figures put the number of documented migrant workers in Israel at about 200,000, up to half of them on expired visas. These have been the target of a deportation drive by Israel’s Interior Ministry, which is run by an Orthodox Jewish party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government.