x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Refugees set their sights on Israel

Egypt used to be the haven for Africans fleeing conflict in their homelands, but with dramatic reductions in resettlement programmes, more of the displaced are looking to the Jewish state for security.

An Eritrean refugee at a bus stop in Tel Aviv. Many migrants and refugees live in the Tel Aviv area near the central bus station.
An Eritrean refugee at a bus stop in Tel Aviv. Many migrants and refugees live in the Tel Aviv area near the central bus station.

RAFAH, EGYPT // Thousands of kilometres from their homes in violence-plagued Darfur, Adam and Abdel Reheem wait near the Egyptian-Israeli border for their chance to cross into Israel. Both were Tel Aviv-bound when they left their villages in south-western Sudan. Abdel Reheem's wife was killed by the Janjaweed - an armed group that has terrorised the region - and he was arrested and accused of being part of an anti-government militia. He points to a deep scar on his forehead, left by the beating he received after being arrested.

Many once fled no farther than Egypt, but the increasingly dismal situation for refugees there has sent many running for the border. Previously abundant resettlement programmes in Egypt have been slashed, asylum-seekers are detained and often denied access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) or even deported. At the same time, rumours of high wages and a sense of security in Israel have spread as far as the highlands of Eritrea and the villages of Darfur.

"My father told me, 'Go to Israel, it's good'," said Abdel Reheem. "In Israel people have money." The economic disparity between Israel and Egypt is vast. The yearly gross domestic product per capita in Israel is more than US$20,000 (Dh72,000) while in Egypt it is just $1,500. On top of this, unemployment in Egypt is high and the labour force comparatively unskilled, making competition great for even low-paying jobs.

"In Tel Aviv there is money. You work and you take money. In Cairo you work but there is no money. Here, you pay for your food and your house and it's finished," said Abdel, explaining that he had left his three children in Sudan and needed to send money back to support them. The route through Sinai and across the largely open 266-kilometre frontier has become a thoroughfare for predominately Christian African refugees since a protest outside the UNHCR office in Cairo in 2005 was violently crushed by security forces. While at least 20,000 have made it into Israel since mid 2007 more than 50 have been killed by Egyptian security forces since then, with the most recent reported death on December 1.

Hundreds more have been apprehended attempting to cross the sparsely populated military zone along the frontier, and some have been jailed and deported to their countries of origin, putting them in danger of imprisonment, torture and death. These numbers could be much higher as the remoteness of the area means rights groups and media rely primarily on reports from Egyptian security forces. With dozens of deaths, human rights groups have accused Egypt of having a "shoot-to-stop" policy, speculating that Egypt is bowing to Israeli and US pressure to stop the flow of goods and people across its porous frontier.

Egypt says it fires warning shots and only directs bullets at people when they refuse orders to stop. "Egypt is an unusual country as it seems it's more bothered by migrants leaving than migrants coming. It's typically the opposite," said Michael Kagan, a senior fellow in human rights law at the American University in Cairo's Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies. "It becomes an irritant in Egypt's most sensitive bilateral relationship - And when more people come, the Israelis complain to Egypt."

In June of 2007, the then-Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, met the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, to discuss the flood of "infiltrators". Israel announced that Egypt had agreed to take measures to stop the flow. Just days later, a Sudanese man was shot and critically wounded by Egyptian border police. Just weeks after that, the first death was reported. Haja Abbas Haroun, seven-months pregnant and fleeing violence in her native-Darfur was killed as she attempted to cross into Israel on July 22, 2007.

From the top of a sand dune about a 45-minute drive through the desert from Shiekh Zowayed - a small town in North Sinai - Mustafa, a local smuggler, who asked that his real name not be used, points to an Egyptian guard tower in the distance. Despite the obvious risks, he says the number of Africans wanting to cross the border has increased. He smuggles around 20 Africans a week, usually in groups of between five and 10. Some wait for days, explains Mustafa, for conditions to be right and for an unattended gap on the border.

Another smuggler arranges the trip from Cairo, and across the Suez Canal, which divides Sinai from the rest of Egypt. There is only one bridge to cross the Suez into north Sinai and it is well-lit and manned with dozens of Egyptians security personnel. Many vehicles are stopped and searched and passengers are asked for identification. Some border-bound migrants are smuggled across the canal by boat, to avoid security on the bridge.

They sneak around other checkpoints on foot, and sometimes Egyptian officials are simply bribed to ensure safe passage. Each migrant pays between $500-$1,000 for the trip from Cairo to the border. It is a risky game as those caught en route are often detained and some are required to stand trial in military courts. Mohamed Bayoumi, the executive director of the Egyptian Foundation for Refugee Rights, said almost all are sentenced to one year in prison and given fines of between 500 and 1,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh330 and Dh660).

Those who cannot afford to pay the fine spend an extra few months in jail. And while some are released into Egypt, others are deported to their home countries without the chance to claim asylum. Once they reach the border area, Mustafa drives close enough that they can dash though the desert unnoticed and across the frontier. Because the guard towers are sparsely placed, it is easy to see how so many manage to slip through unnoticed.

Some Israeli officials have claimed as many as 700-1,000 people sneak into the country each week, although rights groups say that figure is much lower. However, what they do not deny is that the number is growing. The swell of migrants has also reignited calls for a fence to be built along the border. The barrier could cost as much as $1 million per kilometre and event hen, would not necessarily be impermeable.

Refugees like Adam and Abdel may be aware of the increased difficulties they face on their bid to a better life in Israel, what they are less aware of are efforts Israel is making to make the country less attractive to asylum seekers. Last year, Israel adopted a policy of 'hot returns' - quickly sending illegal border crossers back to Egypt without processing refugees' claims. The policy is now being challenged in Israel's Supreme Court, but this year alone over 200 new arrivals were promptly deported to Egypt - a policy human rights groups and the UNHCR says is illegal under international law. Others have been held in detention centres for months.

For those that do manage to make it to Tel Aviv, work and residence permits are being restricted and earlier this year the government cracked down on illegal migrants with mass arrests. Changing realities will not, however, necessarily dissuade people from making the journey. "People talk. It doesn't take long for a message to get passed back," said Mr Kagan of Cairo's Center for Migration and Refugee Studies. "There is a 'the-streets-are-paved-with-gold' phenomenon in terms of what people back home learn about destination countries. They might not learn about all the hardships.

"But often they do know, and they do know the situation and they just decided the risks are worth it." * The National