Egyptian Policy Imperils Refugees, Migrants at Israel's Door

Intissar Adam, 20, is among thousands of African migrants to attempt crossing Egypt's Sinai border into Israel. She claims to have seen an Egyptian security officer shoot and kill her cousin as he lay on the ground in surrender. Egypt has killed at least 21 migrants since 2007. Video by Video: Ellen Knickmeyer, The Washington Post; Edited by: Heather Farrell,
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 12, 2008

CAIRO -- Egyptian security forces are killing an increasing number of Darfurian refugees and other African migrants attempting to cross from Egypt's Sinai desert into Israel in pursuit of jobs and a better life, according to refugees, human rights groups and the Egyptian government.

Since the first recorded border killing in the summer of 2007, when Egyptian authorities announced a live-fire policy on the Sinai border, Egyptian security forces have shot dead at least 28 migrants as they left Egypt for Israel, the rights group Amnesty International said Thursday. Of those, the group said, 23 have been killed since January.

Survivors of three border shootings say Egyptian forces shot and killed some migrants without warning as they lay on the ground or raised their hands in surrender -- allegations the Egyptian government denies. Although most refugees interviewed on the subject by human rights groups have said warning shots preceded the shootings, the rights groups contend the use of deadly force violates international law because the unarmed migrants pose no threat. At times, though, local Bedouins who guide the migrants to the border do carry weapons, and Bedouin smugglers have killed two Egyptian security officials since December.

Refugee advocates say that Israeli and U.S. pressure on Egypt to stop the flow of African migrants into Israel led the Egyptian government to adopt its live-fire policy -- an assertion Israeli and U.S. officials deny. Israeli officials do, however, acknowledge fears that their prosperous country will be overwhelmed if African migration across its porous 155-mile-long border with Egypt is not checked.

Sudan's government has also urged Egypt to take tough measures against Sudanese citizens trying to enter Israel, a country with which Sudan remains officially at war. The Sudanese refugee commissioner, Mohamed Ahmed al-Aghbash, said in July 2007 that any Sudanese entering Israel were pursuing "Zionist agendas" and urged Egyptian officials to "firmly penalize" them.

Thousands of African migrants have made the crossing in recent years, with the number increasing sharply in the past two years despite Egypt's live-fire policy, rights groups said. Egyptian officials said last month that they had arrested 587 migrants at the Sinai border since January.

A spokesman for Egypt's Foreign Ministry, Hossam Zaki, said, "Those people attempting to cross the border illegally are given ample warning by Egyptian authorities before being fired at."

In a written statement, the ministry said that if someone was spotted trying to cross the border, authorities were required to "order him to stop immediately." When migrants refuse to stop, the statement said, "the authorities have to deal with them to ensure respecting the law."

The spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Margaret White, wrote in an e-mail response to questions: "We appreciate the difficulties of securing this border against illegal crossings by armed criminal and terrorist groups. However, we do not believe that use of deadly force is an appropriate method of interdiction."

Intissar Adam, a 20-year-old refugee from Darfur living in Sixth of October City outside Cairo, described how she and five other African migrants attempted to cross the Egypt-Israel border in late June. As her group neared the frontier, she said, Egyptian forces on higher ground opened fire without calling for them to stop or firing warning shots.

"They just started shooting," she said.

Three of the migrants sprinted across the border into Israel, she said, while she and another migrant froze with their hands in the air. Adam said her 26-year-old cousin, Younis Zakaria, fell to the ground on his back beside her and stretched his arms above his head.

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