JERUSALEM Israel has stopped the unapproved influx of African migrants across its once porous border with Egypt after months of intensive counter-measures, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday.
More than 60,000 Africans, most of them men, have walked into the Jewish state in recent years seeking work or refuge. They have stirred fear for public order and demographics, coming under occasional racially-motivated street violence.
The government has responded by erecting a heavily patrolled fence on the frontier with the Egyptian Sinai desert, pursuing legal penalties against Israelis who hire migrants without work permits and launching so far small-scale deportation drives.
Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday that 54 migrants crossed the border in October and were all taken into custody - a steep decline from the some 2,000 migrants who came through monthly by mid-2012, many of them settling in Israeli cities.
"Given this figure, we can say explicitly that we have halted the infiltration. And now we have to focus on removing or returning those infiltrators who are already in the territory of Israel to their countries of origin," the conservative premier said.
Israel brands the vast majority of the migrants, more than 80 percent of whom are adult males, as illegal job-seekers. Humanitarian agencies say they should be considered for asylum. Some Israelis have been troubled that their country, founded by war refugees and immigrants, is packing foreigners en masse.
But only a few thousand migrants from South Sudan and Ivory Coast have been targeted for expulsion. The bulk of the migrants are from Sudan or Eritrea, and Israel's ability to repatriate them is limited. The former is a hostile Muslim state, the latter deemed a ravaged danger zone by refugee advocates.
Israel was holding around 2,500 migrants caught at the Egyptian border or rounded up by city police in two desert stockades, an Israeli official told Reuters, adding that the relatively low number reflected the fact that "there has not yet been any major deportation campaign".
William Tall, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Israel, saw in the Netanyahu government's inaction against the Sudanese and Eritreans a de facto immunity.
"I think we all understand that if the government was capable of deporting them, it would have moved to do so long ago," Tall said.
He agreed that migration across the Israel-Egypt border had dropped off "dramatically", suggesting that among disincentives had been Cairo's recent military mobilisation against jihadi groups in the Sinai.
(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller)