JERUSALEM Israeli police on Tuesday sent back to custody about 150 African migrants who had abandoned a desert detention center in protest against a new law allowing them to be kept there indefinitely.
Aided by rights groups, the migrants had travelled to Jerusalem to demonstrate outside the Israeli parliament, which last week passed a law allowing authorities to hold illegal migrants in an "open facility" until they leave the country.
The Israeli government says that most of the 50,000 African migrants, mostly Sudanese and Eritrean, who have since 2006 crossed over the Egyptian border into its territory, are illegal job-seekers who threaten the Jewish state's social makeup.
But rights groups and liberal lawmakers say many are asylum-seekers fleeing hardship and persecution in their homelands.
"We came from a war-place and we want our dignity. We want to save our lives. We are not criminals," one migrant, who did not give his name, said at the protest.
Police and immigration officers broke up the migrants' demonstration and loaded them on to buses headed for prison. A police spokesman said there were some minor scuffles at the scene, but no one was hurt.
An Israeli immigration official said the migrants would be held in prison for up to 90 days, for breaking the terms of custody in the newly-built open facility that they had abandoned late on Sunday.
The center, in a remote southern Israeli desert, allows the 400 migrants who were moved there from a nearby prison last week, to leave during the day and return at night.
The newly-passed law says they may be held there pending voluntary repatriation, implementation of deportation orders or resolution of their asylum requests.
"The law is the law and it surely applies to the illegal job-seeking infiltrators. The infiltrators who were moved to the special facility can stay there or go back to their own countries," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
Rights group have appealed the new law, which replaced previous legislation, annulled by the Supreme Court last September.
(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Angus MacSwan)