JERUSALEM Israel launched a high-profile deportation drive against African migrants on Sunday with an airlift of South Sudanese whose government said they would be welcomed back as economic assets.
The planned weekly repatriation flights from Tel Aviv to Juba have been played up by the Israeli government amid uncertainty as to how it might deal with much greater migrant influxes from Sudan, a hostile country, and war-ravaged Eritrea.
"Today the government commences the mission of returning the illegal work infiltrators to their countries of origin," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet, using a term Israel applies to the vast majority of the some 60,000 Africans who walked in over its porous border with Egypt in recent years.
Hastened by street protests, some violent, against the migrants in a Jewish state that sees them as a threat to public order and demographics, the government seized on the South Sudanese, whose de facto refugee status was rescinded by an Israeli court this month given their fledgling country's relative stability.
The decision was supported by Juba. Formally independent from Sudan since last July, the African country received clandestine Israeli help for decades prior and counts on wider investment in its struggling agriculture and oil sectors.
"South Sudan and Israel, we consider ourselves brothers and sisters because we have very strong relationship," Clement T. Dominic, the South Sudanese official overseeing the airlifts set to begin on Sunday night, told Reuters in an interview.
"The situation is good at home, and that is why we are encouraging them (migrants) to come back," he said.
Dominic put the number of South Sudanese in Israel at 700, less than half the 1,500 figure given by the Netanyahu government - a discrepancy that may be due to administrative confusion over those who arrived before Juba's independence.
According to Dominic, most of the migrants would leave voluntarily, encouraged by the free transport and Israeli handouts of 1000 euros per adult and 300 euros per child.
"I think this is a good package that will allow these people to get reintegrated when they come back to South Sudan," said Dominic, whose title is undersecretary of the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry.
"There is a lot of potential in South Sudan, and some of these people, I think, they got skill here in Israel, in hotel industries, in small business, and when they get back home they are definitely going to contribute to the development of the new nation. There are a lot of opportunities."
The first flight, departing on Sunday night, was to carry between 120 and 150 South Sudanese. Dominic said the airlifts would be completed by next month. Hundreds of Sudanese have previously been repatriated in similar flights from Israel.
Despite claims on oil reserves that have attracted Chinese interest, South Sudan remains plagued by border disputes with the north, and its 8.6 million population of mostly rural cattle herders and farmers endure some of the world's worse health and education levels.
William Tall of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Israel had assured his agency that South Sudanese who resist repatriation would be heard out by humanitarian authorities. Dominic predicted only a small number of such applications, citing 10 South Sudanese who had taken up studies in Israel, and another 6 who had married locals.
Israel, whose population of 7.8 million already suffers ethnic strains, has been slow to extend official asylum to the Africans. It disputes U.N. assessments about how many of them should be considered refugees rather than migrant workers.
Justyna Wanis, facing repatriation to South Sudan with her husband and three young children after five years in Israel, voiced worry about her prospects.
"I have no family. I have nobody there. But I am going," she told Israel's Army Radio in Hebrew, describing herself as originally from "the north," possibly a reference to today's Sudan. "I don't know where I'll go. I don't know what I'll do."
Dominic said his ministry would provide a "way station" for such cases, to ease their arrival in South Sudan.
Dwarfed by Israel's economic prowess, Juba appears set on showing its gratitude through diplomatic backing.
"I am telling you we are going to open our embassy in Jerusalem, not in Tel Aviv," Dominic said, describing a move, as yet unscheduled, that would make his country alone in recognizing Israel's claim to sovereignty over all of the holy city. (Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller)