Foreigners illegally residing in Israel have said they have been “treated like animals” by Israeli authorities, as a campaign to arrest and deport the immigrants came into action on Monday.
More than 140 people, more than half of them from South Sudan were arrested by Israel's immigration police in a series of sweeping raids on Sunday and Monday aimed at rounding up and deporting illegal immigrants, officials said Tuesday, according to Israeli news reports.
But while officials said that they had “signed voluntary departure forms,” the news site reported, the immigrants said they had been forced to leave.
“They fired all the people, so they decided to leave,” Michael Bazia, 45, a Sudanese community leader in Arad, told Ynet. “They treat us like animals so we have no choice but to go back.
“They are going from house to house and rounding up people. They tell us: ‘Get your things and go,’” Bazia said, adding that “the (people) are willing to go home, but not in this manner. We are tired of this. We’ve only had independence for 10 months. You can’t build a state in 10 months,” referring to South Sudan, the world’s newest nation.
“They said they would give us a week to prepare, but the week hasn’t ended yet and they already started with the arrests,” Bazia added.
The arrests on Monday follow orderly protests on Sunday by about 500 Sudanese men against their expulsion.
“We are refugees, not criminals,” the Sudanese chanted, in a retort to allegations that Africans prey on Israeli citizens, following high-profile rape allegations.
“We’re being called a cancer and an AIDS virus on the Israeli people, by politicians in the Knesset,” protest organizer Jacob Berri said, accusing the government right-wingers of racist incitement and inflammatory language.
Many Sudanese, including hundreds who escaped from conflict and humanitarian disaster in Darfur, have been in Israel for several years, living in legal limbo without formal refugee status, but peacefully, they say.
Berri said the South Sudanese “know when they are not wanted and will leave.” But their refugee status must first be assured by the United Nations, and third-country resettlement programs established.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned last week of Africans “flooding” and “swamping” Israel, threatening “the character of the country.” He also said that emergency measures to reverse the influx will include “detention facilities with thousands of units.”
An official at the Population and Immigration Authority claimed that “whoever wants to leave voluntarily can receive a grant and some time to sort their affairs in Israel; this is much more respectful; each person should decide according to their own considerations,” the news website reported.
Israel Interior Minister Eli Yishai has said that the campaign “is not aimed against infiltrators, but instead is meant to preserve Israel’s character as a Zionist-Jewish country.”
“What we witnessed today was just the beginning of the battle for the future of Israel. I’m certain that the court will also sanction the deportation of infiltrators from Eritrea and Sudan, who pose the main threat,” Yishai told Ynet.
Meanwhile, the Immigration Authority said the operation to arrest the 1,500 South Sudanese migrants will continue in the coming weeks. According to Israeli media reports, the goal is to repatriate all the estimated 60,000 African migrants, including some 35,000 Eritreans.
But Israel cannot deport all Eritreans due to international obligations, which include Eritrea being recognized by the United Nations and the international community as a country ruled by a tyrannical regime that systematically violates human rights.
The situation in Israel, a country which was built essentially by immigrants and refugees, has led many commentators to believe that deportation is a bad solution which could damage the international image of the country.
Critics have said the rounding up of members from different racial groups and holding them in camps for deportation may invite allusions to the Nazi Holocaust and betrays Jewish values, however unfair such comparisons may be.
(Written by Eman El-Shenawi)