Sadiq Sahour came to Egypt from Darfur in 2004 after government militias burned down his village. He wanted to find a better life for his family, but in Cairo he found no work and little assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). So in July 2007, he and his wife, Hajja Abbas Haroun, made an increasingly popular – and dangerous – decision for refugees and migrants. They resolved to smuggle themselves into Israel.
With their infant daughter in tow and a second child due any day, they traveled to the Sinai town of Al-Arish and paid Egyptian smugglers $250 per person to ferry them to the border area. As they drew near, says Mr. Sahour, Egyptian border police approached the group of 12 adults and several children and opened fire.
Ms. Haroun and her unborn child were killed instantly. Many of the others were arrested, tried, and sentenced to heavy fines and a year in prison.
"The police came and shot us from close up," Sahour says. "They could see that there were women and children."
In a report released Wednesday, US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says a disturbing new Egyptian policy has arisen seemingly in response to Israeli pressure on Cairo to control the flow of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers across the border. They call it a policy of "shoot-to-stop."
"Egyptian border police are using lethal force to stop refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers from crossing into Israel," says Bill Van Esveld, author of the HRW report. "That is a violation of the standard under international law, which Egypt is held to: if you do not need to use lethal force to protect human life, that you don't."
In the past two years, more than 13,000 people have been smuggled into Israel, the report states. Thirty-three others, including children, have died at the hands of Egyptian security forces in the remote border zone.
Egypt maintains that the use of force is needed because smuggling networks represent a threat to national security.
"We do not shoot migrants, we shoot infiltrators," said Lt. Col. Yasser Ahmed Ali, commander of the Liasion Agency with International Organizations, a branch of the Egyptian military working with multinational forces in Sinai, speaking to reporters in September.
Haroun's death occurred just weeks after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met to discuss the border issue. After the meeting, Israel announced it would return migrants and asylum seekers to Egypt, which promised to treat them humanely. Activists say many returnees were never heard from again.
Mr. Van Esveld says such returns are illegal under international law, and that the group faces inhumane treatment.
Michael Kagan of the American University in Cairo Faculty of Law says that the US and the UNHCR can provide valuable leadership on the issue.
"Egypt must understand that shooting pregnant women and 7-year-old girls [the youngest victim] is not what the international community wants, and it is not what the United States wants," he says.