Israel plans to deport tens of thousands of asylum seekers to a third country in Africa under threat of indefinite detention, a move that local human rights activists say violates international and Israeli laws.
The Israeli cabinet approved a proposal on Sunday to close the Holot detention centre, a facility in the southern Negev (Naqab) desert that currently houses just over 1,000 African asylum seekers, according to Israeli daily Haaretz.
Put forward by the interior and public security ministers, the proposal would see Holot shuttered by mid-March 2018.
Asylum seekers in Israel would then be forced to choose between indefinite detention in an Israeli prison, or deportation to a third country in Africa – named in the local media as Rwanda – with or without their explicit consent.
Currently, Israel is home to about 40,000 asylum seekers, according to government figures. That includes 27,500 Eritrean and 7,800 Sudanese asylum seekers, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has reported.
The proposal is expected to go to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation for consideration, Haaretz said.
Sigal Rozen, head of public policy at the Tel Aviv-based Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, told Al Jazeera that Israel’s plan is immoral and a violation of both international and Israeli laws.
“We are alert to see what is happening on the ground,” Rozen said.
Many asylum seekers are panicking at the news that they could be deported against their will, Rozen said, and some have already registered to leave on their own accord.
“If that’s the case, then [the government] might not need to detain people and to take them by force … It looks as if this is part of the plan,” she said.
“The main policy is detention and deportation.”
Israel’s interior ministry did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
The proposal appears to go against an Israeli High Court of Justice decision from August, that ruled that while Israel could deport asylum seekers to a third country, it could not threaten them with indefinite detention in order to get them to leave.
However, in a statement on Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said Israel’s policy towards asylum seekers – whom he referred to as “infiltrators” – has entered a third phase that can be described as “increased removal”.
“This removal is enabled thanks to an international agreement I achieved, which allows us to remove the 40,000 remaining infiltrators without their consent. This is very important,” he said.
While Netanyahu did not explicitly name the third country in Africa that asylum seekers would be deported to, local media has named it as Rwanda.
Israel plans to pay Rwanda $5,000 for each asylum seeker it agrees to take in, Haaretz reported.
It will also pay each asylum seeker $3,500 and pay for their flight out of the country, the newspaper reported.
“It will enable us later to make the Holot facility unnecessary and to use part of the vast resources we allocate there for inspectors and increased removal. That is why we are succeeding here. But our goal is to continue removing significantly more then (sic) what we have until now,” Netanyahu said.
Most asylum seekers in Israel are from Sudan and Eritrea. They arrived in the country over the last decade via Egypt and most have fled war, torture and other mistreatment.
Between December 2013 and June of this year, about 4,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers were deported under Israel’s “voluntary departure programme” to Rwanda and Uganda, according to the UN’s refugee agency.
UNHCR expressed concerns about this week’s proposal, saying that “the secrecy surrounding this policy and the lack of transparency concerning its implementation” has made it “very difficult for UNHCR to follow up and systematically monitor the situation of people relocated to these African countries”.
“As party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Israel has legal obligations to protect refugees and other persons in need of international protection,” Volker Turk, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, said in a statement.
Though it is a signatory to the convention, Israel has only recognised eight Eritrean and two Sudanese asylum seekers as refugees since 2009, according to UNHCR. Two hundred Sudanese refugees from the Darfur region were also granted humanitarian status.
Israel has pressured asylum seekers and refugees to leave the country for years, through a series of restrictive laws, the threat of arrest and detention at the Holot prison, and limits on their movement and access to employment and education.
According to Rozen, the government has maintained a policy that aims to make life in Israel so unbearable for asylum seekers that they choose to leave on their own.
“All this together is created to make them feel unsafe and unwanted,” she said. “[If] they will continue leaving quickly, then there will be no need to deport.”