Israel said on Wednesday it would pay thousands of African migrants living illegally in the country to leave, threatening them with jail if they are caught after the end of March.
The plan launched this week offers African migrants a $3,500 payment from the Israeli government and a free air ticket to return home or go to “third countries”, which rights groups identified as Rwanda and Uganda.
“We have expelled about 20,000 and now the mission is to get the rest out,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, in public remarks at a cabinet meeting on the payment programme, said a barrier Israel completed in 2013 along its border with Egypt had effectively cut off a stream of “illegal infiltrators” from Africa after some 60,000 crossed the desert frontier.
The vast majority came from Eritrea and Sudan and many said they fled war and persecution as well as economic hardship, but Israel treats them as economic migrants.
An immigration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there are some 38,000 migrants living illegally in Israel, and some 1,420 are being held in two detention centres.
“Beyond the end of March, those who leave voluntarily will receive a significantly smaller payment that will shrink even more with time, and enforcement measures will begin,” the official said, referring to incarceration.
Some migrants have lived for years in Israel and work in low-paying jobs that many Israelis shun. Israel has granted asylum to fewer than one percent of those who have applied and has a years-long backlog of applicants.