JERUSALEM - Israel sent 120 South Sudanese back to their country on Sunday, starting what could develop into a deportation of thousands of unauthorized African migrants who have poured into the Jewish state.
A delegation from South Sudan did not oppose the repatriation. In all, more than 500 migrants agreed to leave in the past week, and another flight is scheduled for next week.
Israel is offering a monetary incentive to migrants to leave voluntarily. Adults who sign the voluntary departure form will receive $1,300 apiece to help them resettle and minors will be given $650 each, she said.
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 have 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, and therefore would be expected to treat returning citizens well. In all, it hopes to expel 4,500 Africans.
The operation would make only a small dent in the total number of migrants. Under an international treaty, Israel cannot deport those from Sudan or Eritrea, 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.