Israel has formally begun a process to deport thousands of African asylum seekers. They have been asked to leave the Jewish-majority state or face imprisonment. In the first round, up to 20,000 illegal immigrants, mostly from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea, will receive notices.

Despite prison service authorities expressing caution that Israeli jails cannot accommodate more than 1,000 people, officials have warned immigrants that they have just two months' time to leave.

In November 2017, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet approved plans to deport up to 40,000 Africans in a move billed as "voluntary departure". Africans who have agreed to leave Israel will receive up to $3,500 for their expenditure and also a plane ticket.

In the first stage, the Israel Population, Immigration and Border Authority began issuing the notices on Sunday, 4 February, targeting asylum seekers who are without children. They will be given an option to leave for their homeland or Rwanda. Violators may face either forced deportations or arrest from April this year.

"The authority's representatives will assist you in the process of leaving the State of Israel until the date of your flight, and any questions you may have can be addressed to them," says a two-page letter given to asylum seekers, according to the Haaretz daily.

"The country to which you go is a country that has developed tremendously in the last decade and absorbs thousands of returning residents and immigrants from various African countries."

It concludes: "We wish you success."

The Israeli government also plans to shut down the Holot detention facility, which houses illegal immigrants and asylum seekers from Africa. The centre, an open facility in the desert, reportedly cost the Israeli exchequer about $68m (£49m) annually to maintain. Those who are sent there are allowed to go out during the day but are required to report back.

There was speculation earlier that Israel had struck a deal with the Rwandan government to pay $5,000 for every African asylum seeker it accepts, in addition to the $3,500 grant for the deportee. Rwanda denied there was any such deal.

Rights groups have vociferously rallied against the Israeli move saying it is an inhumane way of handling the refugee situation. Hundreds of Israeli rabbis have also launched what they called an Anne Frank-initiative pledging they are even willing to keep hidden the asylum seekers in their own homes.

Israel Asylum Seekers
Migrants stand against a fence during a protest against Israel's treatment of asylum seekers in Tel Aviv Reuters