JERUSALEM — Israel will be able to jail illegal migrants without charge for up to three years, an official said on Sunday, as part of efforts to curb a major influx of Africans from across the Egyptian border.
An interior ministry spokeswoman told AFP that following a directive from minister Eli Yishai, legislation from the start of the year giving authorities powers to detain migrants for up to three years was to be implemented.
Spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said that the order had previously been to jail illegal migrants who entered Israel for 10 days, before then setting them free inside the country.
Interior ministry statistics show there are approximately 60,000 African immigrants who have entered Israel illegally. Some are refugees fleeing persecution in their home nations, but others are economic migrants.
Haddad said that during May alone 2,031 Africans entered the country.
A recent spike in racial tensions in Israel resulted in riots in southern Tel Aviv, currently home to tens of thousands of African migrants.
Last month, a protest by 1,000 people against the rising number of Africans moving into the area turned violent.
Demonstrators went on the rampage, attacking African-run shops and smashing up a car driven by two African men.
Police said afterwards 20 people had been arrested on suspicion of vandalising shops and attacking cars driven by Africans, but were no injuries.
The riots sparked shock in Israel, but also prompted top-level calls for the immediate arrest and expulsion of tens of thousands of African migrants, most of whom come from Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea.
Yishai, who has often tried to expel non-Jewish immigrants sparking accusations of racism, on Sunday met Eritrean ambassador Tesfamariam Tekeste Debbas "to find joint ways to return infiltrators," Yishai's office said.
Yishai asked the ambassador to convey the message to Eritreans that "Israel cannot be a destination for them, and future infiltrators are liable to find themselves in prison," a statement said.
It said the two discussed ways of repatriating migrants in a way that would "ensure their dignity, while safeguarding Israel as the home of the Jewish people."
Before the violent demonstration, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the phenomenon of "illegal work infiltrators" is "very grave and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity."
After the violence, he condemned the actions and racist statements of politicians who whipped up the crowd, and promised to resolve "the problem of the infiltrators" by sending them home in a process which would start "soon."
Israel is also constructing a 250-kilometre (155-mile) fence along the Egyptian border.
Photo by Sasha Y. Kimel via Flickr