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By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Israel should stop plans to send tens of thousands of migrants back to Africa forcibly, the United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday, suggesting some could be resettled in Europe or other countries.
Israel said last Wednesday it would pay thousands of African migrants living illegally in the country to leave, threatening them with jail if they are caught after the end of March.
The vast majority come from Eritrea and Sudan and many say they fled war and persecution as well as economic hardship. Israel treats them mostly as economic migrants.
The plan offers African migrants a $3,500 payment from the Israeli government and a free air ticket to return home or go to "third countries", which rights groups identified as Rwanda and Uganda.
"We are again appealing to Israel to halt its policy of relocating Eritreans and Sudanese to sub-Saharan Africa," William Spindler of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told a Geneva briefing.
"Official statements that the plans may eventually target families and those with pending asylum claims, or that asylum seekers might be taken to the airport in handcuffs, are particularly alarming," he said.
Some 27,000 Eritreans and 7,700 Sudanese live in Israel, but authorities there have only granted refugee status to 11 since 2009, Spindler said.
In Europe, Eritreans have a very high rate of recognition as refugees fleeing war or persecution, he said. "So we would expect that among them, many would qualify for refugee status.
"What we would like to see in Israel – and we are willing to help in that respect – is to find legal alternatives for these people, through resettlement in other countries."
Rwanda and Uganda both said last Friday they had not struck any deal to take in African migrants from Israel under a scheme condemned by rights groups.
Over the past two years, UNHCR has interviewed 80 Eritrean refugees or asylum seekers in Rome who arrived in Italy after a hazardous journey across Africa following their departure from Israel to Rwanda, Spindler said.
"Along the way, they suffered abuse, torture and extortion before risking their lives once again by crossing the Mediterranean to Italy," he said.
Some migrants had reportedly died en route to Libya, he said, noting that U.N. agencies are carrying out emergency evacuations of migrants from Libya, where slave-like conditions have been reported in detention centres.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)