Uri Lenz/AP
Migrants from Sudan wait in-line for a security check before boarding a flight at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, late Monday, Dec. 12. An official familiar with the operation says 150 Sudanese who illegally entered Israel were flown back to their war-torn homeland in a secret operation.

Israel repatriates 150 Sudanese in broader effort to discourage African influx

The number of Africans crossing into Israel illegally doubled in 2010, prompting a number of government measures – including yesterday's repatriation.

Israel repatriated some 150 Sudanese asylum seekers on Monday night, the latest effort to stem a surge of Africans illegally crossing from Egypt to find work and refuge from instability at home.

The Sudanese were sent home voluntarily – reportedly with $500 parting stipends from the government – with the assistance of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

But migrant rights advocates said the Sudanese left because of hardened government sanctions against the migrants, risking their safety just ahead of a Jan. 9 secession referendum for the south that could cause new turmoil.

"What does voluntary mean? Systematically, the government is forcing them to go because they aren't providing them assistance,'' says Yohannes Bayu, an Ethiopian refugee in Israel who heads the African Refugee Development Center. "People are telling me that its better to die there than to die here because I cannot support my family here.''

Surge in Africans crossing illegally into Israel

The number of Africans who sneak across the open desert from Sinai into Israel more than doubled in 2010, bringing the total number of Africans who have crossed illegally into Israel to about 32,000, according to the Interior Ministry.

That has fueled a charged debate in Israel between the government, which claims the Africans take jobs from citizens and threaten the country's Jewish character, and those who argue that the Jewish state has a historical obligation to look after refugees already in the country.

Israeli government spokespeople declined to comment on the quiet operation, though the UNHCR representative confirmed some of the Israeli reports in an interview with Israel Radio. They flew via an unidentified third-party African country, since Sudan and Israel are technically at war.

"We are satisfied that individuals made a choice that they expressed voluntarily ... and that the conditions were such that they weren't coerced into it,'' said UNHCR official William Tall. "They are aware of the conditions that will await them when they go back.''

Almost all of the 150 were from southern Sudan, where uncertainty is mounting ahead of a vote that is encountering logistical hitches that further muddle the ballot.

Israel's recent moves to dissuade Africans

In recent weeks Israel has taken a string of steps to dissuade Africans from coming, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring them "a serious threat.''

The government has started to build a fence along the open border with Egypt, and it has decided to build a detention facility to house thousands of infiltrators. Meanwhile, Israel's Interior Ministry has begun to explicitly discourage Israelis from employing Africans.

Save for several hundred Darfurians who have received government permission to stay, the remaining Africans – most of them Eritrean and Sudanese – are viewed by Israeli officials as migrants seeking illegal work in the country.

"They knew that they wouldn't get refugee status no matter what,'' says Sigal Rozen, a spokeswoman for the Hotline for Migrant Workers. "Israel's government is torturing them'' by not giving them permission to work.

The dilemma is one facet of the challenges posed by Israel's economic success in transitioning from a developing nation to join the ranks of Western modern economies, attracting migrants from Africa as well as other countries outside of the Middle East.

"Thirty or 40 years ago no [Israeli] have imagined that Israel would become such an attractive place for non-Jews for the obvious reason: security problems, the unique culture, and – back then – relatively low level of income,'' says Momi Dahan, a Hebrew University economist who says Israel must limit the number of migrants. "It doesn't matter whether they come from Thailand, the Philippines, or Africa. It causes the same problems."

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