Africans living illegally in Israel say they face harassment and in some cases fear for their safety, as government authorities move ahead with plans to deport thousands of migrants.

Adam Keller came to the Middle East country three years ago after fleeing violence in Darfur, Sudan. Like many Africans in Israel, he says lately he’s faced taunts from local residents.

Keller said a group of young people were speaking about him on the bus earlier that day. "The African people they can go back to Africa," he heard them say.

In recent weeks, hostilities in Israel toward African migrants have gone beyond words in some cases. A few apartments in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with African tenants have been firebombed.

"It’s like a dangerous life here," Keller said.

Last month, the neighbourhood in Tel Aviv where Keller comes to gather with other African men was the site of a protest by hundreds of Israelis, who say migrants are a nuisance who cause crime. Several African migrants were assaulted by the crowd, prompting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to denounce the violence.

Deportations expected

Netanyahu has also promised to step up efforts to detain and deport those he calls "illegal infiltrators" who put Israel's national identity "at risk."

On Monday, Israeli authorities began detaining dozens of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, accusing them of entering the country illegally.

'It looks as if the government completely ignored the fact that the majority of these people are genuine refugees.' —Segal Rosen, Hotline for Migrant Workers

Interior Ministry spokesperson Sabine Hadad said 55 people, including 45 from South Sudan, were rounded up in Monday's raids, which took place in several towns across the country. More raids were planned in the coming days, she said.

The government plans to deport 4,500 migrants, after a landmark court decision was handed down last week.

The arrests were the harshest move yet against migrants, reflecting growing concern about the effect on Israel of tens of thousands of Africans who have sneaked into the country across the porous Egyptian border in recent years.

Rights concerns

Some rights groups have taken issue with the crackdown, accusing the authorities of abdicating their responsibilities.

"The situation has definitely deteriorated," said Segal Rosen, who works for an organization called Hotline for Migrant Workers. "It looks as if the government completely ignored the fact that the majority of these people are genuine refugees."

Last year, there was one successful applicant among the 4,600 people who sought for refugee status in Israel.

An estimated 60,000 Africans call the country home. Some claim asylum, while others are simply looking for work in a relatively prosperous country.

Many of the migrants have concentrated in impoverished neighbourhoods of south Tel Aviv -- an area with so many migrants that Israelis have dubbed it "little Africa."

The government has offered cash incentives to those who leave voluntarily and says others will be expelled by force. Israel is also building a detention centre near the Egyptian border that's expected to house as many as 3,000 migrants.

With files from the CBC's Derek Stoffel and the Associated Press