African migrants demonstrate outside the Embassy of Rwanda in the Israeli city of Herzliya on Wednesday against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and failed asylum seekers rallied in the city of Herzliya on Wednesday protesting against a government plan to deport them, as controversy over the issue mounts.

The rally started as Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority issued the first batch of deportation notices to some 20,000 single men who entered the country illegally between 2008 and 2012. Israel is offering them $3,500 and a plane ticket if they pack up and leave voluntarily. If they refuse? They will be incarcerated for an indefinite period and deported by force.

The plan, which is being overseen by Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, is the latest in a series of controversial attempts by Israel to tackle the issue over the past decade. His ministry estimates there are as many as 38,000 African migrants living in Israel illegally. Most, they say, are job seekers looking for a better life.

The migrants, however, maintain they are refugees who have fled war and persecution in their native lands. They have a right to seek asylum in Israel, they say. The Eritreans say they are fleeing an open-ended national service in their country the United Nations has said amounts to enslavement. Human rights groups maintain that the migrants face imprisonment and torture if they return.

Israel does not recognize absconding from military service as a reason to be granted asylum. Out of thousands of applications, Israel has so far deemed only 11 Eritreans and 1,100 Sudanese from the Darfur region eligible for temporary residency.

Deri, an ultra-Orthodox politician who spent 22 months in jail for bribery and breach of trust, said his ministry will not deport genuine asylum seekers and Eritreans and Sudanese will not be sent back to their home countries. The solution, he said, is to deport people to a third country.

In a meeting in his office this week, Deri said Israel had made deals with two African countries willing to take in those being deported, though he declined to say which countries. Local media and human rights groups have identified the countries as Rwanda and Uganda.

Over the past three years, Deri said, thousands of migrants have left Israel willingly, some to those countries. Human rights organizations working with the migrants and media reports on those who have already left Israel say the plan puts vulnerable people at further risk.

Since Deri announced the scheme last month, it has drawn sharp criticism from various groups, with physicians saying they fear it will put people’s lives in danger; academics and rabbis saying the Jewish state should be obliged to take care of people seeking shelter; and law professors calling the plan illegal. Commercial airline pilots have said they will refuse to fly the migrants, and Holocaust survivors have even threatened to hide people in their homes.

Despite the criticism, Deri said the Israeli government is determined to go ahead with the plan.

“I think it is my job as the interior minister of this Jewish country to make sure this small place can take in those who have nowhere else to go in the world,” said Deri, who leads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

We met Deri in his office in Jerusalem. This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity:

Q: Israel is a country built on refugees. What do you say to the critics of this deportation plan who feel it jars with Jewish values? 

A: Firstly, I am proud I am part of a Jewish nation that has all these different voices. As a religious Jew and someone who was born in Morocco and came to Israel, I will say we are doing this after many sleepless nights. We are not ignoring the problems, and we don’t like it. It is happening after a lot of thought, but we have to do this for the future of Israel and the future of the Israeli people.

I say to all the pilots, doctors and professors, well done for fighting for the rights of other people. But as the wise men have taught us: Take care of the poor in your city before taking care of the poor in other cities.

Q: Why are you keeping the names and the nature of the agreements and the countries involved secret?

A: There is a court order preventing us from saying. It is because of security issues or foreign policy, but it has been reviewed by the Supreme Court so, right now, we can’t say.

It is important to point out that over the past four years more than 20,000 Africans have left of their own will. Around 5,000 have gone to the third country in Africa you are speaking about, and a large percentage of them left that third country and returned home to Eritrea. We know this because we have people who are checking up on them.

Q: Are there any safeguards in place to ensure those being deported do not become victims of other crimes? 

A: I have been dealing with this issue day and night for two years. Yes, we have received reports of fixers taking money from the people we sent there, pretending to get them work permits. Now we have made sure the third country gives them work visas after three days, so no one takes their money.

All I say is at this stage, if it comes to my attention there is a danger or the third countries are not keeping their side of the agreement, then of course I will stop it and reevaluate it.

Q: Europe grants 90 percent of Eritreans asylum; in Israel it's less than 1 percent. How do you explain the discrepancy?

A: Every country has their own immigration policy, but we are also party to an international convention. The convention talks about refugees; the convention does not refer to economic migrants.

We are the only Jewish country in the world; there is no one else who takes care of the Jews except for us. We do what we are required to do by law, which is to take care of those who are seen by our law as being in danger, and we deport those who we are not required to do so.

Q: Why are illegal Ukrainians and Georgians are being treated differently? There is no mass deportation order.

A: In 2017, we forcibly deported 5,200 Ukrainians and Georgians. We just put them on a plane and sent them back to their own countries. They got no grant and no airline ticket. Until today, we have not forcibly deported any Africans. The claim that we are sending only those with black skin away and that we don’t do anything to the Europeans is a lie.

Q: There are some industries such as tourism and restaurants that have grown reliant on the African migrants. How will you fill the void? The tourism minister has said he will bring in Filipinos. Why not just use people who are here?

A: Instead of the Africans, I will bring in Palestinians. I have more of an obligation to help the Palestinians than I do the Africans. The Palestinians are my neighbors; if they don’t have work, then they will not be able to live.

The government has already approved a plan to increase the number of Palestinians working in Israel. If I can bring in 30,000 more Palestinians to work in hotels and restaurants, they will earn a good income, and that will help the whole region.

I would also like to bring in Palestinians from Gaza. I believe militants are not the same people who want to work, but there is a disagreement on this within the cabinet.

Q: Given the criticism there has been from certain parts of Israeli society and the prison officials saying they don’t have space for holding migrants, are you determined this plan will go through?

A: We are doing this after many sleepless nights. We are not ignoring the issues. We reached the decision that we have to do this for the future of Israel and the future of the people of Israel.

An earlier version of this story said Israel had granted asylum to 1,100 Sudanese, but the ministry later clarified that they had been granted temporary residency, not asylum, as stated during the interview.