JERUSALEM -- The Israeli Cabinet voted unanimously Sunday to finance a $160 million program to stanch the flow of illegal African migrants by stepping up construction of a border fence and expanding a detention center to hold thousands of new arrivals.
Some 50,000 Africans, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, have illegally entered southern Israel since 2006 through the porous border with Egypt's Sinai desert, according to government estimates.
The influx has sparked a national debate. Some Israelis fear the mounting non-Jewish arrivals will compromise the state's Jewish character. Critics also claim the migrants are an economic and social burden. But others don't want their country, which grew out of the Nazi genocide of Jews, to turn away people escaping persecution or conflict.
Addressing the Cabinet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the swelling stream of migrants is "a national scourge." Netanyahu, like other officials, said the overwhelming majority of infiltrators are not refugees escaping persecution, but instead have come to Israel seeking better economic opportunities.
"If we don't take action to stanch this illegal flow, then we will simply be inundated," he said. He said he would explore the possibility of repatriating some of the economic migrants when he visits Africa next year. Israel already has repatriated hundreds of Africans.
Migrant advocates contend the Africans are bona fide refugees and should be granted asylum. They accuse the government of ignoring the retribution most of the migrants face should they return home.
"Across the world, 88 percent of Eritrean migrants who seek asylum are recognized as refugees," said Reut Michaeli, an attorney for The Hotline for Migrant Workers. "I find it very difficult to believe that the ones who come to Israel are any different."
But Israeli officials believe the overwhelming majority have come in search of work. They said the purpose of the government plan is to make it as difficult as possible for them to work.
The centerpiece of the plan involves expedited completion of a border fence with Egypt that is also meant to keep out militants. In August, militants crossed the border and killed eight Israelis. The fence, which is to stretch the entire length of the roughly 150 mile (250-kilometer) border, is to be complete by October.
Israel also plans to build a detention center that could house thousands of migrants and expand a prison that is currently housing some of the Africans. Legislation is planned to lengthen detention times, from 60 days to a maximum of three years. And employers who hire illegal migrants will face stiffened fines as much as $18,000.
Elements of the plan were approved last year but funding for the overall program was not authorized until Sunday.
The Africans began trickling into Israel after neighboring Egypt violently quashed a demonstration by a group of Sudanese refugees in 2005, killing at least 20. The number of migrants surged as word spread of safety and job opportunities in the relatively prosperous Jewish state.
They have congregated in several cities, but a lack of a coherent government policy has led to the creation of slums and frictions with locals who claim the migrants have brought crime and harassment of women.
Officials hope the border fence with Egypt will keep most migrants out. The detention center is meant to let Israel round up migrants without running afoul of international law, which requires governments to feed and shelter migrants – or let them work – while their status is being processed.