An African migrant holds a free meal in Tel Aviv, Israel on Aug. 30. Measures taken by Israel to stem a flow of illegal African migrants coming across its desert border with Egypt have had a dramatic effect in recent months, reducing the influx of newcomers to a trickle. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Measures taken by Israel to stem a flow of illegal African migrants coming across its desert border with Egypt have had a dramatic effect in recent months, reducing the influx of newcomers to a trickle, according to recent government figures and Israeli groups aiding the Africans.

The turnaround — after years of steadily swelling numbers of migrants whose presence had unsettled many Israelis — was hailed this week as a “success story” by Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, advocates for the migrants accuse Israel of violating international law by turning back asylum seekers at its border without checking their refugee claims.

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.

To receive asylum as refugees, migrants must show that they are fleeing violence or persecution in their native countries. Israel has committed not to deport people from Eritrea and Sudan once they arrive because of the risks they face at home. But since they are given group protection from deportation, their individual cases are not reviewed by the Israeli authorities to determine whether they can be granted refu­gee status. As a result, the migrants lack work permits and social and health benefits given to legal residents.

Israeli officials did not specifically reply to the assertion that Israel was acting unlawfully by repelling the migrants at the border without considering their refu­gee claims.

But Regev, Netanyahu’s spokesman, said that Israel had the legal right to regulate entry across its borders. “People who enter Israel illegally are taken to detention centers according to the law,” he said. “And we have the right to prevent people from entering Israel illegally.”

Human Rights Watch, in its statement with the Hotline for Migrant Workers and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, said that Israel was obliged under international law to examine the Africans’ refugee claims and prohibited from returning them to places where their lives or freedom were threatened, or where they risked torture and abuse.

“Building a border fence does not give Israel a right to push back asylum seekers,” said Gerry Simpson, a senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch.

‘Hunger and thirst’

Citing witness accounts, the groups listed several cases since June in which Israeli soldiers had blocked Eritreans and other migrants at the border fence. In some cases soldiers fired warning shots in the air or threw stun grenades and tear gas canisters to repel the Africans, and in others they entered Egyptian territory and detained the migrants before handing them over to Egyptian forces, according to the reports.

In one incident that attracted extensive Israeli media attention, a group of 21 Eritreans that reached the Israeli border fence remained there from Aug. 28 to Sept. 6 under a makeshift cloth shelter in searing desert heat as Israeli troops prevented their entrance. Eventually two women and a teenage boy were allowed in, and the men were turned back.

“The hunger and thirst were terrible. The Israelis fired [tear] gas at us twice, pushed a long metal pole through the fence and tried to push us back,” the boy said in an affidavit taken in the migrant detention center by Omer Shatz, a lawyer for We Are Refugees, an Israeli legal aid group.

On the eighth day, after enabling the women and boy to cross, the soldiers “threw the rest of the men on the cloth sheets and dragged them under the Egyptian border fence,” according to the affidavit. “The men had begged for eight days, and on the eighth day they no longer had the strength to resist. They were exhausted and screamed, ‘Just kill us here.’ ”