Israel: 1700 African migrants give up and leave

'Voluntary returns' says Interior minister;not so, says activist

28 February, 18:48

    (by Aldo Baquis). (ANSAmed) - TEL AVIV, FEBRUARY 28 - The Israeli government has been trying to stem a wave of African migrants (mostly from Eritrea and Sudan), and it is sure it has come up with a formula to induce them to gradually return to their countries of origin without formally expelling them.

    Interior Minister Gideon Saar (Likud) has announced that there were 1,705 ''voluntary returns'' in February (out of a total of approximately 55,000 asylum seekers), a distinct increase over the previous months. As an incentive, each departing adult is given $3,500 to cover primary needs.

    The phenomenon is being monitored with concern by the Assaf Center for refugee aid, in the belief that those returning to Africa are exposed to many dangers, including long detentions.

    ''We certainly can't call these 'voluntary departures''', Sudanese migrant Mutassem Ali, who is active in protests against the Israeli government, told ANSA. ''They are doing everything they can to make our lives bitter. Some people have been reduced to utter despair''.

    In a first attempt to stem migrant entries on land, which totaled 1,500-2,000 a month, Premier Benjamin Netanyahu two years ago ordered a barrier built at record speed along the Egyptian Sinai border.

    Illegal entries did in fact cease as soon as the barrier was completed, but this still left the problematic presence of tens of thousands of Africans living in the poorer districts of Tel Aviv, Eilat, and Arad. To deal with them, the government opened the Holot 'Welcome Center' in the Neghev desert. While the gates are left open, it is seen as a de facto jail, because internees are forced to sign in three times a day. So far, several hundred single men have been placed in Holot, for an indeterminate amount of time. Mutassem Ali, a geologist who obtained his degree in Khartoum and who has been living in Israel for more than four years, was among those slated to be moved to Holot, but fought his relocation in court. He no longer feels he has a future in Israel, and hopes to be welcomed by a US university. People must not worry about the fate of migrants who return to Africa, according to the interior minister. From what he has been told, they are able to fend for themselves.

    But Mutassem Ali says that those who returned to Sudan (and Eritrea) were put on trial, or threatened with legal action.

    They risk up to 10 years in prison, according to his estimates.

    He has heard that a small number of migrants have reached Uganda: but what status they will be granted, or how long they will be allowed to stay, is still unknown. Demoralization is rife among Mutassem Ali's acquaintances around Levinsky Square, in a working class district of Tel Aviv.

    Some are getting ready to leave, ''it doesn't matter where, Ivory Coast, or even Rwanda''. Others hope international pressure will induce Israel to recognize them as refugees, a status it has granted only to a fortunate few. On the streets, tension is on the rise: not only because of constant police pressure, but also because of the latent hostility of Israeli residents, who in turn feel threatened by the ''African invasion''. The Levinsky Square police station has so far been able to avert any incidents from occurring. But it is about to be shut down, and on the street, the air is heavy with anxiety.


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