Crossing into Israel, African migrants dodge Egyptian bullets, Israeli jail threat

Egyptian border guards have shot and killed at least 15 migrants since May, prompting an outcry from human rights watchers. African immigrants increasingly use a path into Israel that goes through Egypt.

By , Contributor

When Amank decided to attempt to cross the Egyptian border into Israel, he wasn't thinking about the likelihood that Egyptian guards would shoot at him. He knew the danger existed, but his main focus was escaping dire economic prospects and rampant discrimination as an off-the-books housecleaner in Cairo.

"I was thinking [about life] after this danger," explains the Sudanese refugee in the office of refugee legal aid group, AMERA. Dressed in a neatly pressed shirt, the slight man with expressive eyes did not want to use his real name for safety reasons. "If I cross, my life will be better."

Many asylum-seekers are making the same cost-benefit calculations with deadly results. After a six-month respite in fatalities, at least 15 Africans have been shot and killed trying to cross the 160-mile border since May. Hundreds of others are in detention, in what analysts believe is the result of a migration spike from Eritrea and a clampdown on an alternative route into Europe.

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The Egyptian government has defended its policy of firing on border-crossers as a matter of national security. It says it warns people before opening fire. A week after the September statement, prompted by the outcry of human rights organizations, another Eritrean was killed.

Legally, "to use live ammunition to shoot people simply because they are leaving has no justification at all," says Michael Kagan, senior international human rights law fellow at the American University in Cairo. He notes that a lack of reported killings since the September statement does not signal a shift in Egyptian policy. "What's most remarkable is that the Egyptians really don't think that they're doing anything wrong," he says.

Dropped near the border, told to run

Like a river with two branches, African asylum-seekers and migrants are funneled through Sudan seeking safe passage to Israel or Italy. The path to Italy continues through Libya and embarks by boat.

On the other path to Israel, migrants are taken through Sudan, into Egypt, and across the Sinai desert in groups, paying between $300 and $3,000 for the journey, depending on their starting country. Armed Bedouins run the Sinai ring, changing vehicles in the dark and hiding refugees under blankets in truck beds during checkpoints. Asylum-seekers reach the border in the early hours of the morning.

Dropped roughly half a mile from the border, the smugglers tell them to run without slowing. If spotted, they come under fire from border guards.

Amank was spotted. But when the guards shot at him, they didn't aim to kill. Instead, he, his wife, and their two young children cowered on the ground as guards shot circles around their bodies. Charged with "infiltration," he spent the next 15 months in Egyptian prisons. He says he has no idea what happened to his wife and children.

Earlier this summer, the combination of a crackdown on the route through Libya and an increase of Eritrean migration put renewed strains on the Israeli border as desperate Africans sought to cross.

Mr. Kagan, who has done previous work on the protection of refugees in Egypt, says that pressure from either side to stem the inflow of refugees creates an environment "where essentially if they want to deter migrants from coming, they have an incentive to be as harsh as possible."

The harsh measures, reinforced in 2009, were initially adopted in June 2007 after a meeting between Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Israel's then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at Sharm el-Sheikh. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, in July 2007, Olmert announced the two countries had reached an "understanding" to handle the increasing numbers of "infiltrators" trying to cross into Israel. For their part, the Israelis instituted a policy of "coordinated returns," in which migrants caught within 72 hours of arriving in their country can be rounded up and pushed back over the border to Egypt. For theirs, the Egyptian border patrol began a shoot-on-sight policy. Both countries claim national security concerns as the basis behind their policies.

Migrant who was shot at would try again

Both Israel and Egypt will put African migrants they catch in their territories in prison, but Israel also returns some to Egypt.

Despite the danger, Amank says he would try the crossing again in a heartbeat, "because living here is like living in hell." Refugees are not legally allowed employment in Egypt.

"When someone goes there and finds a better life, of course they will call their friends and tell them you have to leave that hell and come here," he says.

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