Israel Voting on Detention Center for Migrants

JERUSALEM -- Israel's prime minister urged his Cabinet on Sunday to approve construction of a massive detention facility to hold thousands of Africans who have slipped illegally through the porous southern border with Egypt.

The proposal, which the Cabinet is expected to approve later Sunday, has fueled an already heated debate in Israel over how to handle the swelling influx of migrants.

Critics charge that the facility, which is to be set up within six months and run by the prisons service, would become a squalid refugee camp. The Cabinet minister in charge of prisons said correctional authorities were ill-equipped to run the facility, which will be designed to hold up to 10,000 detainees.

But other officials said Israel cannot allow tens of thousands of economic migrants to enter illegally each year, take jobs from unskilled Israelis and -- if permitted to enter without restriction -- dilute the country's Jewish character.

Netanyahu told his Cabinet before the vote that the center is part of a multipronged approach that includes the construction of a barrier along the thinly patrolled areas of the 130-mile (220-kilometer) Israeli-Egyptian border, which began last week, and heavy fines on people who employ illegal workers.

"There is a swelling wave threatening Israeli jobs, a wave of illegal migrants that we must stop because of the harsh implications for Israel's character," Netanyahu said.

The detention center, where the migrants would be housed, fed and receive medical care, would be a "humanitarian solution" for dealing with the migrants until they are expelled from Israel, he said.

According to figures the government prepared before the Cabinet vote, about 13,000 illegal migrants from Africa are expected to enter Israel by the end of the year, joining more than 20,000 others who came between 2006 and 2009.

Without government intervention, the number of new migrants could reach 30,000 a year by 2015, Cabinet secretary Tzvi Hauser told Israel Radio on Sunday.

Some of the migrants seek political asylum. But officials say most come looking for work and have become absorbed into the country's sizable illegal work force. They often are paid extremely low wages and live in abominable conditions.