Israel Gives African Asylum-Seekers A Choice: Deportation Or Jail

Take $3,500 and a one-way ticket to Africa by April, or face forced deportation or jail.

This is Israel's new plan for thousands of East African migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, who crossed the Sinai Desert into Israel over the last decade.

The policy, announced Jan. 1, has sparked panic among migrants, who say they took perilous journeys to Israel seeking refuge from hardship, and it has been criticized by the U.N. Refugee Agency. The issue has also renewed an emotional debate among Israelis about whether their country owes the migrants safe haven.

Not all of them are being deported. Women, children, families and those with pending asylum requests submitted before 2018 get to stay, Israeli authorities say. It's single men who Israel claims are economic migrants who are receiving deportation notices. Some of the men had their asylum bid rejected. Others never submitted one. 

About 34,000 African migrants are in Israel today. Some bear the scars of abuse and torture by Egyptian Bedouin smugglers in Sinai on their way to Israel. Many tell stories of escaping war in Darfur, or compulsory military service in Eritrea that often conscripts men for decades.

For years, the Israeli army took them in as they crossed the desert border by foot. They were loaded onto buses and taken to Tel Aviv. Today work as janitors and street cleaners, or cooks and dishwashers in Tel Aviv's trendy restaurants and caf├ęs.

They consider themselves asylum-seekers and refugees. But Israel's official term for them is "infiltrators," having crossed the border illegally. Read more via NPR