The Israeli Government yesterday adopted an emergency plan to turn back the tide of African migrant workers crossing into Israel, the one country with a Western economy Africans can reach on foot.
Warning that the number of illegal immigrants could reach 100,000 a year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the influx posed an economic, social and security threat to the country.
"Entire populations are starting to move and if we don't act to stop this we will be washed away," he said.
"It's no longer a choice but a necessity."
Israel's population is about seven million. The Government decided to trim the budget of all ministries by 2 per cent to fund a US$167 million ($216 million) programme that would include the completion of a fence along the 193km border with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, which the migrants must cross to reach Israel, and the construction of large detention facilities to temporarily house those who make it across.
Netanyahu said he would fly to Africa to discuss with government leaders in several states the return of migrants to their countries of origin. His trip is expected to take place in three months.
The bulk of the infiltrators come from Sudan and Eritrea but Netanyahu said almost all were labour migrants and not bona fide refugees.
"Refugees are a small portion of this stream," he said.
"We will continue to look after them. But we have no obligation to receive illegal migrants."
There are just over 50,000 illegal migrants in the country but they are now arriving at the rate of about 2000 a month, Israeli officials say.
They make the arduous trip across the Sinai desert with the aid of Bedouin guides.
The migrants have come to form sizeable blocks in cities in southern Israel and in the poorest sections of Tel Aviv.
Many residents and local officials have protested at their presence, citing increased crime and sanitation problems.
The Cabinet also decided to impose fines of up to US$20,000 on enterprises employing illegal immigrants.
"If need be, we'll shut down these enterprises so that the enterprise we call 'the State of Israel' won't be shut down," said Netanyahu.
Israel presently has a detention centre not far from the Sinai border which holds about 2000 infiltrators. It will now be tripled in size.
The border fence was initially designed principally to prevent terrorists from crossing into Israel from Egyptian territory but the prevention of huge legal immigration has come to be seen as a task of no less urgency.