Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in public remarks at a cabinet meeting on the payment programme, said a barrier Israel completed in 2013 along its border with Egypt had effectively cut off a stream of “illegal infiltrators” from Africa after some 60 000 crossed the desert frontier.
The vast majority came from Eritrea and Sudan and many said they fled war and persecution as well as economic hardship, but Israel treats them as economic migrants.
The plan launched this week offers African migrants a $3 500 payment from the Israeli government and a free air ticket to return home or go to “third countries”, which rights groups identified as Rwanda and Uganda.
“We have expelled about 20 000 and now the mission is to get the rest out,” Netanyahu said.
An immigration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there are some 38 000 migrants living illegally in Israel, and some 1 420 are being held in two detention centres.