Israel has flown home 150 illegal Sudanese migrants in a secret operation that was the largest such deportation from the Jewish state, an Israeli official confirmed Tuesday.
The group, which left late Monday, was the biggest to leave since Israel began quietly deporting hundreds of African migrants a few years ago. The deportations are part of an attempt to stanch the influx of Africans slipping across Israel's porous southern border with Egypt.
The Sudanese left willingly, according to officials.
"We are aware that people expressed interest to go back," said William Tall, an official from the U.N. refugee agency. "I can confirm that no coercion was involved in their going back."
There was no official Israeli comment. An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, said a Christian organization helped coordinate the return of 150 Sudanese to Sudan via a third unidentified country.
It was the first time a special flight was arranged for African migrants to leave Israel, the official said. Migrants have previously been deported on commercial flights.
African migrants began to cross the Israeli-Egyptian border in 2005, after Egypt violently quashed a demonstration by a group of Sudanese refugees in Cairo, killing several people.
Thousands began to follow suit, often paying Egyptian smugglers a hefty price to sneak them across the desert border. Since then, more than 30,000 Africans have flooded into Israel, according to government estimates.
Most come from Eritrea, Sudan and other African countries plagued by conflict and poverty, fleeing violence and in search of economic opportunity in Western-style Israel.
Israel says the migrants are overwhelming the small state and threaten the country's Jewish character. It recently began building a barrier on its porous southern frontier to keep them out, and approved a plan to build a large detention facility to hold illegal migrants.
But plans to expel Africans have irked some Israelis, who say their country — founded in part as a haven for Holocaust survivors — should not turn away people fleeing repression in their home countries. Israeli human rights groups have accused officials of not reviewing applications for political asylum.
The Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli advocacy group that assists African migrants, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the migrants were returning to Sudan because Israel had neglected them.
"This is not the first time in human history that people in mortal danger have returned to their home countries because the country in which they sought refuge shirked its responsibilities and embittered their lives," the groups said in a statement.
The groups said media publication of the Sudanese migrants' return to their home country was "irresponsible" and endangered those who were returning. Sudan has no diplomatic relations with Israel, and is governed by a conservative Islamic regime.
The Sudanese who left Israel are returning to south Sudan, where residents will vote in a Jan. 9 referendum on whether to secede from the Muslim north and declare an independent state.
Many of those who flew home Monday rushed to return in time for the referendum, said a person familiar with details of the transfer, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear Africans could be harmed if it is publicized they were in Israel.