Africans seeking refuge in Israel must first survive perils of Egyptian crossing

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cairo -- Sadiq Sahour slowly recounted a story he has carefully kept hidden from his daughter. It began in an unforgiving desert in Sudan, where he and his wife, Hadja, escaped militiamen who razed their ancestral village. It resumed in Egypt, where they fled in search of security, only to find more despair.

And it ended on a coal-black night in another desert, along the Egyptian border with Israel, where they sought a new future. He carried their 2-year-old daughter, Samar. Hadja carried their unborn child. As they neared Israel, shouts from an Egyptian border patrol sliced across the desert. Then came the bullets.

Hadja fell to the ground.

Driven by fear, persecution and economic woes, hundreds of mostly Muslim African migrants are embarking on perilous journeys to seek asylum and jobs in Israel. They are part of a global migration of the poor and oppressed to wealthier nations and continents, and Israel is becoming an increasingly popular destination. In 2006, 1,411 people sought asylum in Israel; by last year, the annual number had grown to 7,500, most of them Africans crossing over from Egypt, according to U.N. figures and human rights activists. Between 400 and 600 refugees are now crossing the border each month.

As the numbers have risen, so has the danger, with Egyptian border guards shooting at the unarmed Africans. The border is one of the deadliest transit points in the world, according to rights activists and witnesses.

The rise in violence coincides with increasing security concerns for Egypt. It faces heavy U.S. and Israeli pressure to stop the smuggling of arms to militants in the Gaza Strip, which was a key trigger for Israel's war against Hamas last winter. Egyptian authorities are also increasingly concerned about preventing Islamist radicals from entering their country.

As the Egyptians escorted Sahour and his daughter away in late 2007, he saw blood oozing from his wife's body. She had been shot in the back of the head, he said. "She was seven months pregnant," he continued, breaking down in tears.

Senior Egyptian officials have been quoted in local newspapers as saying that it is necessary to shoot anyone who attempts to cross the border. Hossam Zaki, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said border guards first shout warnings or fire weapons in the air, and shoot at people as a last resort. "The Egypt-Israel border has many security concerns," Zaki said. "The security officers have no clue who these individuals are, what's their nationality, or what is their purpose of being in this prohibited area. They are not going to open an investigation by loudspeakers."

From July 2007 to October 2008, Egyptian guards killed at least 33 migrants and wounded scores, according to Human Rights Watch. Since May, at least 15 migrants have been killed, according to news reports and human rights activists.

Anat Ben-Dor, a refugee rights lawyer in Israel, said many African asylum seekers have been treated for gunshot wounds in Israeli hospitals. Most reported being shot by Egyptian guards, though she said she was aware of three killed by Israeli soldiers. Meanwhile, Egyptian border security forces arrested 85 refugees between January and May, but the number jumped to 144 in June and 169 in July, according to Human Rights Watch.

Israeli soldiers have forcibly returned scores of migrants to Egypt without allowing them to file asylum claims, according to statements in an ongoing Israeli high court case challenging the legality of such deportations. At the same time, Israel has granted temporary visas for thousands of asylum seekers, especially those who face persecution in their homelands. They include many Muslims. But those allowed to stay remain in legal limbo for years, with few rights and no means to leave, activists say.

In Egypt, those arrested while trying to cross are tried by a military court, then thrown in prison for at least a year and ordered to pay steep fines. Many face deportation to the homelands they fled, places where they endure more persecution and grief. A significant portion are from Eritrea and Sudan, especially from the latter's war-riven Darfur region.

Hawa Shogar, 27, frail with large saucer-shaped eyes and a soft, sad voice, said seven of her relatives in Darfur were killed by pro-government militiamen. She sat in a tiny, crumbling apartment in one of Cairo's poorest enclaves. After another attack in 2004, she and her family fled to Sudan's capital, Khartoum. The following year, they arrived in Cairo on a tourist visa -- and went straight to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office.

"We thought we would be safe," she said. But with a high unemployment rate, jobs in Cairo were scarce. Rising food prices and the global economic crisis compounded their woes. Five years later, Shogar still wears the clothes she brought from Sudan.

Last year, her husband, Ahmed, heard that smuggled Africans were getting jobs in Israel. He had his doubts. "Israel was the absolute enemy," Ahmed said. "The Sudanese government would cut my throat if they knew I went to Israel." Then he looked at his leaking roof, at the faces of his wife and children. "We were dying here anyway," he recalled.

So he borrowed $500 and gave it to a Bedouin smuggler. They joined 23 other Sudanese and Eritreans, clutching their possessions in small plastic bags.

But as they approached the border, an Egyptian patrol fired into the air and stopped their trucks. Some of the migrants tried to flee and were shot. One young man died, Ahmed said. The family was taken into custody. A sympathetic official released them after a few weeks but warned that they would remain under surveillance.

Many refugees are not so fortunate. Egyptian border guards shot Franco Marcello, 28, a Christian who had fled war in southern Sudan, in his left arm. He later woke up in a hospital, his right hand cuffed to the bed. He was tried and sentenced to a year in prison. Today, his arm is disfigured, purplish and motionless. He walks in the shadows of Cairo; his fear has deepened. "The minute I see police, I am going to run," he said.

Sahour spent a year in prison. Hadja's body was buried somewhere in the desert.

As he finished his story, Sahour wiped his eyes. Next to him, a television beamed the news. Egyptian border guards had arrested 27 Africans trying to enter Israel, the anchor reported. Moments later, Samar, now 4, entered the room. She stared at her sobbing father.

"She's not aware of what happened," Sahour said after his daughter left the room. "Whenever she asks about her mother, I tell her: 'Your mother is traveling.' "

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