Israel is set to inform thousands of Africans who entered the country illegally that they have three months to leave or face indefinite imprisonment.
The decision, opposed by rights groups, follows months of speculation over the future of both the migrants and the Holot detention facility in the Negev desert, which the government says it intends to close.
There has been often heated debate about the presence of around 40,000 African migrants in Israel, many from Eritrea and Sudan.
In September the supreme court ruled that Holot detention centre should close within 90 days. Still open as the deadline looms, a film shot in April this year captures the lives of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees sent to this centre deep in the Negev desert
It is proposed that migrants who do not have a refugee application pending will receive a notice the next time they are obliged to appear at an interior ministry office to renew their residency permits, telling them to leave Israel or face indefinite imprisonment.
Details of the plan were disclosed this week in a statement by Israel’s interior minister, Arye Deri, and the public security minister, Gilad Erdan. They said the migrants would have “two options only: voluntary deportation or sitting in prison.”
Critics have pointed out that the option to leave is far from voluntary if the alternative is prison.
It is not clear whether Israel’s supreme court, which has intervened in the migrant issue before, will do so again.
Most of the migrants arrived in Israel in the second half of the last decade, crossing from Egypt before new security on the border sealed the route.
Groups including the Centre for Refugees and Migrants, Amnesty International Israel and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel have signed a letter demanding the expulsions be stopped. “Anyone who has a heart must oppose the expulsion of the refugees,” the letter says.
Referring to a widely reported deal to pay Rwanda $5,000 per person to accept migrants, it adds: “Rwanda is not a safe place. All the evidence indicates that anyone expelled from Israel to Rwanda finds himself there without status and without rights, exposed to threats, kidnappings, torture and trafficking.”
Rwanda has said it could take as many as 10,000 people. An investigation by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an NGO, found people who had already agreed to leave for Rwanda were vulnerable to a number of threats including imprisonment, violence and extortion.
Recently the UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, criticised the emerging plan. “The Israeli government’s decision to expel 40,000 African asylum seekers is of great concern,” he said. “Israel has a painful history of migration and exile. New generations must not forget that refugees do not flee out of choice but because they don’t have any other choice.”