Desperate on the Border (Extract)

Egypt has adopted harsh, sometimes lethal, methods to stem the flood of African refugees seeking to cross the Sinai border into Israel

alasdair224 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract from Issue 16, November 24, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Throughout recorded history and before it, the Sinai Peninsula has served as a land bridge for migrations and invasions into and out of Africa. Today its barren sands and craggy peaks are the backdrop for one of the routes taken by one of the most dramatic migrations in history: African refugees fleeing famine, disease, tyrannical governments and genocidal wars. In addition to those who undertake hazardous sea voyages to Europe or the Gulf in ramshackle vessels, thousands of desperate Africans take the no less arduous and dangerous option of trying to reach Israel by crossing Egyptian Sinai and stealing across the border into Israel. At least 11,000 African refugees have crossed into Israel from Egypt over the last three years alone, according to the U.S.-based international non-governmental organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW). But for many, the journey has ended in tragedy. In July 2007, 28-year-old Hajja Abbas Haroun was shot dead by an Egyptian border guard as she sprinted towards the Sinai border fence with her husband, Saddik Sahour Abkar, after fleeing their home in the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan. Haroun, then seven months pregnant, and carrying her two-year-old daughter, Samar, in her arms, died instantly. Her husband was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison by a military court. Following the death of her mother, Samar spent several days at the El Arish police station, on the north coast of the Sinai Peninsula, before being collected by her uncle. She was finally reunited with her father after his release from prison on August 4, 2008. Mervat Mer Hatover, a 37-year-old Eritrean, suffered the same fate in February 2008 - killed by a shot to the head as she attempted to vault the crude barbed-wire fence that stretches across the 220 km-long Egyptian-Israeli border. She, too, was traveling with children - her two daughters - when she was gunned down by Egyptian security forces, according to an Amnesty International report. Since Haroun's death - the first reported fatality among African refugees trying to cross the Sinai border - HRW has identified 32 other separate incidents of Egyptian border police fatally shooting African refugees. In the most recent one, on November 3, a Sudanese man trying to cross the barbed wire border south of the town of Rafah was shot dead by Egyptian guards when, according to reports, he ignored warning shots. There have also been instances when the Beduin refugee-smugglers have shot at the Egyptian border guards, killing two of them since December 2007. Human rights campaigners blame Israeli pressure on Egypt to stem the flow of refugees for the lethal force that is being used. "We have written to the Egyptian authorities asking for an investigation into the killings at the border in order to determine the circumstances under which the security forces have opened fire and to bring anyone found guilty of having used excessive force to justice," says Nicole Choueiry, a spokesman for Amnesty International, speaking to The Jerusalem Report. "So far, we did not receive any response from the Egyptian authorities and there is no indication that they have launched any investigation into the shootings." The Egyptian government justifies its policy on the grounds of "national security." A spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry declined to comment but, in January, New Society, the Harvard College Student Middle East Journal, attributed the following statement to the ministry: "If those crossing refuse to heed the orders of authorities to stop, then authorities are forced to deal with them in such a manner to ensure respect for the law." "The Egyptian government's attitude towards African refugees has become harsher over the last 12 months," says Michael Kagan, a Senior Fellow in Human Rights at the American University in Cairo. "They have now become increasingly violent at the border by shooting unarmed refugees in the back - including children - when the worst thing that they are doing is trying to leave Egypt by an unauthorized route." "You have always had migrant workers who are not refugees - Chinese, Thais and Egyptians - smuggling themselves into Israel from the Sinai for work," Kagan tells The Jerusalem Report. The current crisis, he says, began to come to a head in 2004 when a small number of Sudanese refugees in Egypt - many fleeing the ravages of war in Darfur - chose to seek refuge in Israel, lured by the country's reputation among many Sub-Saharan refugees as a thriving democracy with a strong economy and a sound human rights record. "This [group] were desperate after facing a great deal of racism in Egypt, and after being left in limbo there by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cairo," says Kagan. "When they started to smuggle themselves into Israel… things began to accelerate as conditions worsened in Egypt and word got back that [getting into Israel] was possible." Human rights activists say that racism and intimidation in Egypt have compelled many African refugees to look to Israel as an alternative place of sanctuary. "There are reports and testimonies that point to racist attitudes in [Egyptian] society," says Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), speaking to The Jerusalem Report. He mentions factors like "ignorant resentment, misconceptions and prejudice, like the suggestion that African refugees spread diseases," as well as "racially motivated identity checks, police raids and crackdowns by security forces, particularly targeting those from Sub-Saharan Africa…" In late 2005, following protests by desperate Sudanese refugees in Cairo, dozens were killed in violent police countermeasures. Bahgat says that the most important point is that the "racial issues in Egypt are the result of the government's failure to conduct awareness raising activities about the positive contributions that migrants have made towards the Egyptian economy." By late 2006 and early 2007, as the number of refugees entering Israel from Egypt increased, the Sudanese were quickly overtaken by Eritreans as the principle ethnic group sneaking across the porous border with Israel. "Everyone is aware of the problems in Sudan … but in Eritrea you have one of the most totalitarian governments in the world," says Kagan. "The Eritreans found that whatever safe haven they had in Sudan had crumbled, so they began paying smugglers in Sudan or Eritrea to take them to Israel." Scattered across some 25 locations in greater Cairo, Egypt's estimated 2,000,000 African refugees - among them, more than 20,000 Sudanese nationals who are registered with UNHCR in Cairo as war refugees or asylum seekers - live in abject poverty, with limited access to basic amenities - a situation that exacerbates their already heightened sense of isolation and persecution. Usually when a country does not wish to give refugees asylum, UNHCR tries to find third countries that will accept them, but in recent years it stopped doing so for the Sub-Saharans in Egypt, principally because developed countries have reduced the amount of resettlement slots for those seeking asylum. Indeed, most Sudanese refugees in Egypt have been left in limbo since the comprehensive peace plan between north and south Sudan in 2005, with many Western governments now seeing the need to resettle them as less urgent than before. Extract from Issue 16, November 24, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.