|An estimated 300 illegal immigrants arrived in Israel every day in 2009, Israeli officials said [File: EPA]|
Israel’s cabinet has voted to build a facility to hold the thousands of illegal immigrants who arrive every year mainly from Africa.
The move is designed to provide a centre in the country’s southern Negev desert, close to the border with Egypt, where the basic needs of the migrants can be met, but they will not be allowed to work, Israeli officials said.
“There is a swelling wave threatening Israeli jobs, a wave of illegal migrants that we must stop because of the harsh implications for Israel’s character,” Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, told the cabinet before the vote on Sunday.
The detention centre, where the migrants would be housed, fed and receive medical care, would be a “humanitarian solution” for dealing with the migrants until they are expelled from Israel, he said.
Eyal Gabai, the director-general of Netanyahu’s office, said the facility had been proposed at trying to stem a flow of illegal migrants, which he said had topped 35,000 in the past few years.
“Israel is trying to fight a situation in which the state, its citizens, are vulnerable to infiltrators who enter with economic motives”, many of whom seek work illegally, he said earlier in an interview with Israel Radio.
‘Not a jail’
Israeli officials have not said how many migrants already in Israel would be sent to the facility, which is expected to be built at or near the site of a former prison camp for Palestinians.
“We aren’t jailing or distancing them,” Gabai said. “They can have a good time, eat and drink. Not everyone who arrives in Israel must be allowed to work here.”
“Coming up with an asylum and immigration policy may mean having to absorb tens of thousands of non-Jewish refugees, threatening the character of the Jewish state”
-Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros
He said Israel was seeking to avoid “unreasonable action” such as deporting migrants, which could put their lives in danger.
“This is a huge issue here and one that is getting bigger month by month,” Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros, reporting from Jerusalem, said.
“On one hand, [Israel] can’t be sending refugees and asylum seekers back because of their legal obligations under international conventions.
“On the other hand, coming up with an asylum and immigration policy may mean having to absorb tens of thousands of these non-Jewish refugees, threatening the Jewish character of the state.”
“We know that 85 per cent of the migrants are from Sudanese and Eritrean backgrounds. Much of the time they are trying to escape punishment or fighting back home, or mistreatment in Egypt,” she said.
“So rights groups are trying to say to the government that instead of holding them in this government facility, you should be coming up with an asylum and emigration policy like any other democracy.”
Our correspondent also said that the dominant reason for the detention facility is not to protect Israeli jobs but to secure the country’s Jewish character.
“I have seen that these immigrants often do jobs that Israeli citizens do not want to do. They are very low paid jobs,” she said.
The issue of controlling migration is controversial in Israel, a country founded on immigration after the World War Two in 1948.
Israel welcomes Jewish newcomers, most of whom receive automatic citizenship. It has brought in tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, including many rescued from famine in the early 1980s.
But Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority says more than 34,000 people have crossed into the country illegally this year. In 2009, an average of 300 crossed the border every month.
Ilan Gillon, a politician in the left-wing Meretz party, has called the holding centre plan “shocking”.
He urged the government to act more humanely and issue work permits to at least some of the migrants.
Most of the migrants arrive from Sudan or Eritrea by travelling through Egypt. Israel has recently begun work on a barrier along 140km of the 250km border to prevent people crossing from the Sinai desert region illegally.
The project is expected to take over a year to complete at a cost of about $370m, the Israeli defence ministry said.
A barrier that would secure the entire border still requires government approval and could see the cost of the project rise to more than $1bn.