Jerusalem: Israel was forcing 120 South Sudanese to leave the country yesterday, starting what was to be a mass deportation of thousands of unauthorised African migrants who have poured into the Jewish state.

Some 60 000 impoverished Africans, most from Eritrea and Sudan, have slipped into Israel across its southern border with Egypt since 2005, fleeing repressive regimes and seeking work. The influx has caused friction with Israeli locals and several incidents recently turned violent.

Authorities, alarmed by the swelling numbers, say the migrants are a burden on the economy and threaten to undermine Israel’s Jewish character.

Facing a public uproar, the government launched a campaign last week to round up and expel migrants from South Sudan and other countries that have friendly relations with Israel. In all, it hopes to expel 4 500 Africans.

In reality, the operation will make only a small dent in the total number of migrants. Under an international treaty, Israel cannot deport those from Sudan, an enemy state, or Eritrea, a country with a miserable human rights record, because they could face harm if they return to their homelands.

In addition, other Africans continue to flood into Israel. Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said that while Israeli authorities rounded up about 300 people over the past week, some 260 more Africans entered Israel illegally.

People leaving yesterday had agreed to go after being threatened with arrest, she said. In all, more than 500 agreed to leave within the past week, and another flight was scheduled for next week. Adults who signed the voluntary departure form would receive e1 000 (R10 550) apiece to help them resettle, and minors would be given e500 each.

The wave of migration has set off a heated debate in Israel. Some believe Israel, founded as a refuge for survivors of the Holocaust, has a special responsibility to help those in need. Others say the problem is not Israel’s alone to solve, and that the flood of migrants could undermine the country’s Jewish identity.

Many of the migrants have concentrated in impoverished neighbourhoods, and their growing presence has created mounting tensions with locals who accuse them of rapes and other crimes. In an alarming recent development, several migrants and African homes and businesses have been attacked.

Migrants’ advocates were appalled by the forced departures.

“They (the migrants) tell the cameras, we are happy, we are proud, but in private conversations, they tell us they’re very afraid,” said Orit Marom, of the Asaf organisation.

To Marom’s criticisms, Haddad replied that the cash the migrants would receive “is equal to more than a year’s salary” in South Sudan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has called the migrants “a national scourge”, told his cabinet yesterday that the government had stopped allowing migrants to enter Israeli cities. Instead, they were to be arrested at the border and put into detention. – Sapa-AP