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Sabine Haddad Israel closes migrant facility in mass expulsion plan

Israel has closed a desert detention centre for migrants as part of a controversial plan for the mass expulsion of thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese who entered the country illegally, officials said Thursday.

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African migrants protest against Israel's controversial new policy of expelling or imprisoning them play

African migrants protest against Israel's controversial new policy of expelling or imprisoning them

(AFP/File)

Israel has closed a desert detention centre for migrants as part of a controversial plan for the mass expulsion of thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese who entered the country illegally, officials said Thursday.

Immigration authority spokeswoman Sabine Haddad told AFP that the Holot facility closed the previous afternoon, ahead of a midnight deadline.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January announced implementation of the programme to remove migrants, giving them a choice between leaving voluntarily or facing indefinite imprisonment with eventual forced expulsion.

Since then some Holot inmates have been transferred to the nearby Saharonim prison.

Others who had submitted asylum requests before January 1 were released pending a decision, Haaretz newspaper reported.

Haddad said that 300 had been freed after agreeing to leave the Jewish state.

Those set free were barred from living or working in seven cities with high migrant populations, including Tel Aviv -- where most are concentrated -- Jerusalem and the Red Sea resort of Eilat, she said.

According to interior ministry figures, there are currently some 42,000 African migrants in Israel, half of them children, women or men with families, who are not facing immediate deportation.

Holot, an open facility where inmates were free to leave during the day but had to return at night, was opened in 2013 with the aim of siphoning migrants away from the cities, the immigration authority says.

As the migrants could face danger or imprisonment if returned to their homelands, Israel is offering to relocate them to an unnamed African country, which deportees and aid workers say is Rwanda or Uganda.

Migrants began entering Israel through what was then a porous Egyptian border in 2007. The border has since been strengthened, all but ending illegal crossings.

Israel's deportation or imprisonment plan has drawn criticism from the United Nations refugee agency as well as from some Israelis and rights activists.

Israeli officials say that no one they classify as a refugee or asylum seeker will be deported, though the process of granting asylum has been criticised as extremely slow and biased against claims.

Only a handful of asylum claims have been approved in recent years.

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