JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli court upheld on Thursday the planned deportation of South Sudanese deemed to have entered Israel illegally, though government pledges of wider crackdowns on African migrants remained in question.
Rejecting a petition by human rights groups that had delayed the Interior Ministry's April 1 deportation order, Jerusalem District Court ruled the state was not obligated to extend de facto asylum to the estimated 1,500 migrants from South Sudan.
The petitioners had not proven that deportees would face "risk to life or exposure to serious damage", the court said, finding in favor of assessments by Israeli diplomats in South Sudan, which declared independence last year after decades of fighting with northern neighbor Sudan.
The bulk of the some 60,000 Africans who have walked into Israel through its porous desert border with Egypt are from Sudan, an overwhelmingly Arab Muslim nation that does not recognize the Jewish state, and from war-ravaged Eritrea.
The rightist government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees in the migrants an economic and demographic threat to Israel's already ethnically strained population of 7.8 million, and anti-African street protests in urban centers have turned increasingly violent.
But while Israel says the vast majority of them came illegally to work, humanitarian agencies argue many of the migrants should be considered as refugees with asylum rights.
William Tall of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the Jerusalem court's support for the Interior Ministry's removal of "collective protection" status for the South Sudanese appeared to be in line with the formal end of their country's war with Sudan.
"We have been assured by the government that they (South Sudanese) still enjoy the individual opportunity to apply for asylum," Tall told Reuters, nothing that continued territorial disputes between Khartoum and Juba may still justify refugee claims.
While the Jerusalem court case was heard, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said he had ordered immigration inspectors to start detaining the South Sudanese and prepare their deportation.
A ministry spokeswoman, Sabine Haddad, said on Thursday that there had been no round-ups yet, but that the 1,500 migrants would now be "processed" for deportation "in the near future".
Another official said Israel had assigned 11 clerks to vet any refugee claims, many of which could be complicated by some applicants' lack of documentation. The official predicted that processing of the South Sudanese would take several weeks.
There was no immediate comment from Juba. Tall said that between 800 and 900 South Sudanese have voluntarily returned from Israel in recent years, despite the lack of reliable, scheduled flights between the countries.
An Israeli official said the migrant problem was discussed in talks with South Sudanese leaders. Asked whether this entailed any Israeli inducements for cash-strapped Juba's help in repatriating the migrants, the official said only: "We have developed a positive relationship with South Sudan."
Israel Radio quoted Yishai, who heads a party run by rabbis in Netanyahu's coalition, as saying he hoped Thursday's ruling would be "the first in a series of measures that would allow for the deportation of all citizens of Eritrea and north Sudan".
But an official briefed on Israel's planning said the government was "in no position to deport all of these people. Eritrea and Sudan are completely different situations".
As a stop-gap, Yishai wants migrants held in desert stockades "so they do not disperse", according to Israel Radio.
"This is not about waging war against them, but about safeguarding the Zionist-Jewish dream in the Land of Israel," he was quoted as saying.
Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller