Israel’s plan to stem African immigration: Wall on Egypt’s border

Israel says the wall, a $270 million project unveiled Sunday aimed at stemming immigration from Africa, will ensure its Jewish and democratic character.

Tsafrir Abayov/AP
A sign is seen near the Israel–Egypt border Monday. Israel's prime minister has ordered the construction of two massive fences along the long and porous southern border with Egypt, saying he wants to stem a growing flood of African asylum seekers and to prevent Islamic militants from entering the country.
Rich Clabaugh / Staff

On Sunday, Israel announced it would build a wall along its southern border with Egypt in a move to secure an area through which thousands of African asylum seekers cross illegally each year.

''This is a strategic decision to ensure the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel,'' said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement. ''Israel will remain open to war refugees but we cannot allow thousands of illegal workers to infiltrate into Israel via the southern border and flood our country.”

The construction of two walls – one beginning in Rafah and the other near Israel’s resort town of Eilat – is expected to take two years and will cost an estimated $270 million. Although a start date for building has yet to be announced, the barriers are expected to put a stop to what has become a thorny issue for Israel, namely what to do with thousands of Africans streaming in each year with hopes of finding a better life.

But some experts say the walls may not achieve the intended goal, saying that the area left open between the two fences may become the new funneling point for desperate Africans.

“There are many walls and barriers to migration like this around the world, some of them do prevent migrants and asylum seekers from reaching their destinations, but many of them don’t actually reduce the numbers but simply make the journey more dangerous,” says Michael Kagan, an expert in refugee law and formerly a senior international human rights law fellow at the American University in Cairo.

“For instance, the walls and barriers between Mexico and the US have typically, over the long term, not reduced the number of Mexicans in the United States, but have increased the number of Mexicans who die on the way to the United States because they have to take a more dangerous route through the desert,” says Mr. Kagan. “If people still intend on reaching Israel, they will simply travel far deeper in the desert in more remote areas in the Sinai and you could get more people dying of thirst or the elements."

Currently, asylum seekers from countries in the horn of Africa and Sudan travel thousands of miles and pay human smugglers to end up at the Egypt-Israeli border in the middle of the night before risking the crossing.

Since May 2009, at least 17 migrants trying to cross were killed by Egyptian guards under what critics say is an unofficial “shoot on sight” policy.

For those who make it across the border, some are picked up by the Israeli Defense Forces, which either returns them to Egypt or places them in detention centers in Israel. Paperwork to determine their status as refugees or migrants may take months to complete. After being released from the centers, refugees frequently do not have legal rights to work in Israel, according to the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli NGO.

Increased deterrence at the Israeli border may lead to a spike in African migration to Europe, a journey that has taken the lives of many migrants, who usually travel in small boats.

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