In a joint statement this week with Human Rights Watch, two aid groups said the Israeli army has been blocking migrants at the frontier, in some cases pushing them back into Egypt, where the groups say the migrants are at risk of prolonged detention by the authorities, abuse by Bedouin traffickers and forcible return to their country of origin.
The Israeli army said in a statement that it was acting to “prevent illegal infiltration” in accordance with “directives from the political echelon.”
The arrival of the Africans — about 60,000 have come to Israel since 2005, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan — provoked a violent backlash in Israel and posed a challenge to the government, which struggled to contain the influx, described by Netanyahu as a potential threat to Israel’s character as a Jewish state.
Living in limbo and gravitating to poor areas in Israeli cities, the migrants generated resentment among local residents. Angry street protests and attacks against the migrants in low-
income neighborhoods in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem triggered a government crackdown earlier this year. Hundreds of Africans from South Sudan and the Ivory Coast, where conditions were deemed safe enough for their return, were rounded up and deported.
Construction of a 15-foot-high-steel fence along the border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula was speeded up, and legislation was amended to permit the detention of illegal migrants for up to three years.
The measures have led to a sharp drop in the number of arriving migrants, many of whom fled war or oppressive governments, seeking work and a better life. In recent years, hundreds crossed the porous Egyptian-
Israeli frontier each month after trekking across Sinai, where many were tortured by Bedouin traffickers holding them for ransom.
Sabine Haddad, spokeswoman for Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, said that the monthly number of illegal migrants entering Israel, which had reached a height of 2,295 in January, had dropped in October to 54. According to the agency’s figures, the falloff began in June, when the government crackdown began and the monthly total fell to under 1,000.
Regulation or bias?
Aid groups say that many of the migrants have been stymied by the border fence and the Israeli army’s practice of summarily turning them back without checking whether they should be granted asylum. Once back in Egypt, the groups said, the Africans were at risk of prolonged detention in Egyptian prisons or, in the case of the Eritreans, forcible return to their country, a repressive dictatorship.