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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 Sarah A. TopolContributor / November 14, 2009

Cairo, Egypt

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.

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"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.

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.