Darfur refugee Adam Abdel Karim, 31, became the latest casualty from the rising tide of those seeking to enter Israel illegally after being shot by increasingly vigilant Egyptian border guards.“Some of my relatives who made it to Israel called me and said it was a good situation over there and that crossing the border with Egypt would be safe,” Abdel Karim told Egyptian police from his hospital bed after his arrest.
He was among 27 refugees caught by border guards in the desert after paying 700 dollars (500 euros) to a Bedouin smuggler. Three other refugees were wounded and a 28-year-old Darfuri woman killed when the guards opened fire Sunday.
“This year the rate of arrivals has increased dramatically,” said Michael Kagan, a senior fellow in human rights law at the American University in Cairo’s law department at a recent panel discussion.
According to UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Israel, 219 Sudanese crossed the border in 2006, while by June 17, 2007, there were already 382 — with anecdotal evidence suggesting many more have tried to make the crossing since then.
An officer in the border guards told AFP, on condition of anonymity, that his forces had stopped around 50 attempts to cross the border by at least 200 Africans in the first six months of the year.
“Egyptian police have increased security measures along the border in recent times following this latest phenomenon of border crossing attempts by Africans,” he said.
On July 1, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office announced an agreement with Egypt to tighten security on the Egyptian side and since that time the number of shootings and detentions has increased.
The Sudanese and other Africans keep coming however, a phenomenon observers attribute to worsening conditions in Egypt, where since 2004 the UNHCR has been moving away from a policy of settling refugees in third countries.
Anger over the change led to a confrontation between police and Sudanese refugees near the UNHCR offices in Cairo’s Mustafa Mahmud square in December 2005 that left 25 refugees dead.
“After the Mustafa Mahmud incident, the refugees began to lose hope, including refugees given blue cards from the UNHCR hoping to be resettled,” Tawer al-Merghany, a Cairo-based Sudanese researcher specializing in refugee issues, said at the forum.
“This made the refugees want to go to any other country, even Israel,” he added.
Those there reported “that the economic situation in Israel is better than the situation in Egypt, and they can earn four dollars an hour,” he said.
Gamal Nkrumah, international affairs editor at the Al-Ahram Weekly, said that in his meetings with the African refugee community in Cairo, they felt they would be more welcome in Israel.
“African refugees, whether Sudanese or from elsewhere, all of them say that life is better in Israel and specifically that the racism there differs from that in Egypt,” he said, being more directed against Palestinians than “Africans.”
It was this situation that prompted Abdel Karim, who had the right of temporary political asylum in Egypt, to pay his 700 dollars to a guide recommended by his relatives.
He then found himself waiting together with dozens of other Africans for days in a tent near the rugged border with Israel.
Four masked Bedouin guides then came to collect them for the trip, recalled fellow hospitalised refugee Thuraya Abdel Shafi, 20, from Ivory Coast.
“We were surprised by police just as we were crossing the barbed wire on the border, the Egyptians fled after exchanging shots with police,” she told authorities.
Despite Israeli assurances that aside from a “small number” of Darfuris, all refugees would be sent back, large-scale deportations have yet to happen, further encouraging the refugees to keep attempting the dangerous crossing.
“There is a gap between the facts on the ground and what the Israeli government actually wants,” said Kagan. “The Israeli government policy is very clear, these people can’t get asylum, they are subject to detention and they are deported to Egypt.
“But they have not been able to carry out that policy very well for a number of reasons,” he added, saying that the courts have rejected attempts at detention and the army appears to have become fed up with detaining them.
On Saturday, the Israeli army dropped off 46 Sudanese in a Bedouin market in the southern Israeli town of Beersheva instead of at the new detention facility constructed for African refugees in the Negev desert.
Beersheva authorities have for their part shown their own frustrations with the influx of refugees by bussing dozens of them straight to the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem last Wednesday.
For his part, Kagan said he expected the flood of Sudanese migrants to Israel to continue despite the heightened Egyptian security and Israeli threats of deportation.
“If refugees had more hope for their future here in Egypt or elsewhere they might not be choosing this option, at least in these numbers.”