By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An unidentified country has agreed to take in Eritrean illegal immigrants living in Israel, according to Israeli court documents.
Humanitarian agencies say many of the 60,000 African migrants who have walked into Israel from Egypt should be considered for asylum. Israel regards most of them as illegal job-seekers, and a national debate on deporting them has stirred strong emotions in a Jewish state founded by war refugees and immigrants.
At a Supreme Court hearing on Sunday on the legality of detaining asylum-seekers who entered Israel surreptitiously, a government lawyer said a deal to resettle "infiltrators from Eritrea" had been reached with a country she did not identify.
Israeli government officials declined to comment, but local media speculated that the statement was a tactic to forestall any court moves to release migrants detained for long periods.
An estimated 35,000 Eritreans are currently in Israel. Returning them to their homeland, a reclusive state accused last year by the U.N. human rights chief of torture and summary executions, is problematic under international law.
But moving them elsewhere could also raise legal issues. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says resettlement can only be considered once refugee status has been granted, something Israel has not done, although exceptions can be made.
"There is an arrangement with one country, which will be an end-destination and not a transit point," the attorney said, according to a transcript provided by the Justice Ministry on Monday.
She told the court she could not reveal the name of the country because the hearing was open to the public.
Israel's Army Radio said the country was in East Africa. Other media reported that Israel had offered it financial incentives to take the migrants in.
In all, more than 60,000 Africans, most of them men, have walked into Israel in recent years seeking work or refuge. Some 2,000, most of them caught at the Egyptian frontier, are being held in a detention center in southern Israel.
Pledging to stem the flow, Israel has responded by erecting a heavily patrolled fence along the Egyptian border, pursued legal penalties against Israelis who hire migrants without work permits, and launched deportation drives, although these have been small-scale so far.
"Compared with the more than 2,000 infiltrators who entered Israel exactly a year ago and dispersed in various cities, only two crossed the border last month, and they were arrested," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday, attributing the steep decline to construction of the barrier.
"Now we have to focus on repatriating the illegal infiltrators already here, and we will fulfill this mission," he said in a statement, which made no mention of any resettlement arrangement.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)