BEN GURION AIRPORT, Israel (Reuters) - Israel is set to deport a planeload of migrants to South Sudan early on Monday, the first of a series of weekly repatriation flights intended as a stepping stone to dealing with much greater influxes of migrants from Sudan and Eritrea.
About 60,000 Africans have crossed into Israel across its porous border with Egypt in recent years. Israel says the vast majority are job seekers, disputing arguments by humanitarian agencies that they should be considered for asylum.
“It’s a drop in a drop (in the ocean), but it’s an important start,” Interior Minister Eli Yishai said at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.
Many in Israel see the Africans as a threat to public order and to the demographics of the Jewish state.
Street protests, some violent, have put pressure on the government, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned of Africans “flooding” and “swamping” Israel, threatening “the character of the country”.
The government has seized on the few hundred South Sudanese migrants, whose de facto refugee status was rescinded by an Israeli court this month, and whose government, sympathetic to Israel, is happy to take them back. Attempts to return migrants to Eritrea or Sudan are unlikely to be met with similar cooperation.
South Sudan received clandestine Israeli help for decades before its secession from Sudan last year, and is counting on Israeli investment in its struggling agriculture and oil sectors.
Most of the migrants agreed to leave voluntarily in return for handouts of 1,000 euros ($1,300) per adult and 300 per child.
But not all were pleased to be going. Justyna Wanis, being sent to South Sudan with her husband and three young children after five years in Israel, told Israel’s Army Radio in Hebrew:
“I have no family. I have nobody there. But I am going ... I don’t know where I’ll go. I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Some of the migrants have accused government right-wingers of racist incitement and inflammatory language.
Some Israelis too, are uncomfortable with the idea of rounding up members of a different racial group and holding them in camps, seeing a betrayal of Jewish values and even distant echoes of the Nazi Holocaust, all in a country built by immigrants and refugees.
Clement T. Dominic, the South Sudanese official overseeing the airlifts, said the migrants would receive “a good package that will allow these people to get reintegrated when they come back to South Sudan”.
He said South Sudan would set up its embassy in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, becoming the only country to recognize the Jewish state’s claim on the undivided holy city as its capital.
William Tall, representing the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said Israel had assured his agency that South Sudanese who resisted repatriation would be given a hearing by humanitarian authorities.
Dominic said he expected only a small number of such applications, citing 10 South Sudanese who had taken up studies in Israel, and another six who had married locals.
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Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey