JERUSALEM Israel signaled on Monday it would deport migrants from Ivory Coast as part of a crackdown on foreigners without permits that has focused on Africans who enter across the porous desert border with Egypt.
The announcement came a day after Israel launched weekly airlifts to send back South Sudanese, a small community in Israel compared to those from Sudan and Eritrea, who can more easily claim refugee status due to war and other hardships in their native lands.
After hosting Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his guest had "expressed agreement that Israel should repatriate Ivory Coast nationals who arrived here without permits".
The two leaders also discussed bilateral cooperation in health care, agriculture, science and technology, a statement from Netanyahu's office said.
Israel's Interior Ministry said there were around 2,000 Ivorians in the country illegally, out of a total African migrant population of more than 60,000. The South Sudanese number between 700 and 1,500 and receive Israeli cash handouts for leaving voluntarily.
Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said authorities had begun arresting about 1,600 Ivorians slated for deportation. She did not give a deportation date.
The Netanyahu government says the vast majority of the Africans are job-seekers but that they threaten to upset the demographic character of the Jewish state of 7.8 million.
Humanitarian agencies argue many of the migrants should be considered for asylum, and some Israelis have been troubled that their country, founded by war refugees and immigrants, should be packing off foreigners en masse.
As many as 50,000 of the migrants come from Sudan, a predominantly Muslim and Arab country hostile to Israel, and from Eritrea, which the U.N. human rights chief on Monday accused of holding thousands of political prisoners and carrying out torture and summary executions.
Speaking on Sunday, Netanyahu acknowledged Jewish traditions of hospitality and humanitarianism but said Africans without permits must go "due to the state's desire to control its borders".
The overland migration has been especially troubling for Israel given deepening insecurity on the frontier with the Egyptian Sinai, where a deadly clash with armed infiltrators took place on Monday.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Roger Atwood)