JERUSALEM -- Israeli immigration authorities on Monday arrested dozens of people in a crackdown on African migrants mainly targeting asylum seekers from South Sudan.
An estimated 1,500 refugees from South Sudan are among the large numbers of Africans who have entered Israel illegally through the Sinai peninsula in search of a haven. Israel extended protection to the migrants from the war-torn area for a time but ended the program after South Sudan became an independent nation last year.
The deportations had been delayed by court petitions filed on behalf of relief organizations and a government review of conditions in the young African nation. The Foreign Ministry eventually ruled that it was safe enough for the migrants to return home, despite United Nations concerns to the contrary.
A Jerusalem court, in turn, Thursday upheld Israel's plan to deport the refugees, saying the petitioners had not proved that deportees would face life-threatening danger. The Interior Ministry said at the time that the migrants would be able to request interviews to determine individual eligibility for asylum and would be given a week to get organized and register for departure grants of about $1,240.
But starting about 5 a.m. Monday, immigration police started raiding apartments, waking up families and rounding them up. Elsewhere, migrants were arrested at banks while cashing salary checks. They were transferred to Saharonim, a holding facility in southern Israel, pending their deportation.
The Israeli government considers the growing numbers of African migrants to be a socioeconomic and demographic threat to the nation, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is determined to curb the flood by sealing the country's sprawling border with Egypt. His administration has already passed bills criminalizing employment and other forms of aid to migrants and has been trying to repatriate the migrants or send them to third countries.
The government's frequent statements on the dangers posed by African migrants, coupled with some increase in crime on the part of migrants left unemployed by government policies, have created a degree of public anger toward the Africans, though other Israelis have rallied in favor of providing them protection.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai is the driving force behind the expulsions. Yishai, a member of the conservative religious party Shas, told Israeli media on Monday that he was "not acting out of xenophobia but out of love for my people," adding that he was concerned about "the future of the Zionist enterprise."
Yishai said the deportation would soon extend to nationals from the Ivory Coast, whose group protection ended early this year. The largest group of migrants, about 55,000 from Eritrea and Sudan, still enjoys protected status and cannot be deported.
Conditions in Africa are rough, Yishai conceded, "but I am a minister in Israel, not the African welfare minister."
"The easiest thing is to accuse me of being a backward racist," he said. "It's not an easy thing, but we have no choice."
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: A South Sudanese refugee holds up his national flag as he is held alongside other migrants at a detention centre in Holon, Israel, on Monday. Credit: Oren Ziv / AFP/Getty Images