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Thursday Nov. 25, 2010 6:59 PM (EST+7)
Israel plans holding facility for illegal migrants

Read more: immigration, Sudanese migrants, Eritrean migrants, immigrants, Egypt, Sinai

JERUSALEM, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Israel said on Thursday it plans to establish a holding facility to control the movements of Sudanese and Eritrean migrants who enter the country illegally from Egypt's desolate Sinai region.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet was expected to approve the plan in a coming session. The facility could open in a matter of weeks in Israel's southern Negev desert, an Israeli official said.

In a country sensitive to comparisons with Nazi concentration camps where Jews were killed, officials insisted the camp would be open. But they did not say how often the migrants assigned there would be allowed to come and go.

Eyal Gabai, director-general of Netanyahu's office, said the facility would provide the Africans with food, shelter and health care. It was aimed at trying to stem a flow of illegal migrants he said had topped 35,000 in the past few years.

Israel is trying to fight a situation in which the state, its citizens, are vulnerable to infiltrators who enter with economic motives, many of whom seek work illegally, he said in an interview with Israel Radio.

Gabai said Israel would avoid unreasonable action such as deporting migrants, which could put their lives in danger, but also wished to limit the economic incentives attracting them.

He said the numbers of African migrants may top 20,000 in 2011, greater than the number of legal immigrants Israel expects to welcome next year.

Israel has also begun building a barrier along the border, most of which is currently an unfenced desert strip.

Israeli officials did not say how many migrants already in Israel would be sent to the facility, which is expected to be built at or near the site of a former prison camp for Palestinians.

We aren't jailing or distancing them, Gabai said. They can have a good time, eat and drink. Not everyone who arrives in Israel must be allowed to work here.

Liberal Israelis criticised the plan. Lawmaker Ilan Gillon of the left-wing Meretz party called it shocking and thought the government should act more humanely and issue work permits to at least some of the migrants.

Established as a Jewish state in 1948, Israel welcomes Jewish newcomers, most of whom receive automatic citizenship. It has also brought in tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews including many rescued from famine in the early 1980s.

Policies toward non-Jewish visitors have been more restrictive, though Israel has permitted the limited employment of tens of thousands of foreigners in recent years in such fields as farming, construction and house care.

Legislation restricting their numbers provoked strike action by farmers in recent days. They complain that without Asian helpers their costs will become prohibitive.

(Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Mark Heinrich)






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