Israel has offered to pay thousands of African migrants living illegally in the country to leave or risk being jailed if caught after the end of March.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a cabinet meeting on the payment program on Wednesday said that a barrier Israel completed in 2013 along its border with Egypt had effectively cut off a stream of “illegal infiltrators” from Africa after some 60,000 crossed the desert frontier, Reuters reports.
Majority of the migrants in the country hail from Eritrea and Sudan and are said to have fled war and persecution as well as economic hardship.
The plan launched this week offers African migrants a $3,500 payment from the Israeli government and a free air ticket to return home or go to “third countries”, which rights groups identified as Rwanda and Uganda.
So far, 20,000 have been expelled from the country.
An immigration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there are some 38,000 migrants living illegally in Israel, and some 1,420 are being held in two detention centers, the report said.
Rights groups have accused Israel of being slow to process African migrants’ asylum requests as a matter of policy and denying legitimate claims to the status.
Netanyahu has called the migrants’ presence a threat to Israel’s social fabric and Jewish character, and one government minister has referred to them as “a cancer”.
He said the move was a way of keeping a promise to restore calm, security and law and order to the residence of South Tel Aviv where most of the African migrants live.