Egyptian Forces Accused Of Shooting Asylum Seekers
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
African asylum seekers have been crossing the Egyptian desert into Israel. It's a dangerous journey. Many say the Egyptian security forces have shot at them as they attempted to cross the border. Still some 18,000 people have made this trip over the past four years, and now Israel wants to stop them, both through legislation and by asking Egypt to tighten controls on the shared border.
Sheera Frenkel reports from a refugee center in Israel.
SHEERA FRENKEL: Just minutes away from Tel Aviv's Central bus station, the journey of these African refugees has come to a dead end. Thousands of miles from their home countries they are unable to apply for residency or asylum here. They inhabit a virtual no man's land in Israel. Ugalan Byen(ph) is one of them. She's from Southern Sudan. She measures her journey not by years or by distance but by children she lost along the way. Her youngest and infant died in the first few months of the difficult journey from Sudan to Egypt where she arrived in the beginning of 2007. One of her sons died at the Egyptian-Israeli border.
Ms. UGALAN BYEN (Sudanese Refugee): (Through translator) I think God intended this for us.
FRENKEL: Earlier this year, Byen scraped together enough to pay the Bedouin smugglers that operate in the Sinai Peninsula along the Israeli border. For ten days, she, her children and other asylum seekers traveled through the desert until they reached the wire that marks the border between the two countries. Her 19-year-old son, Iskander(ph) carried three-year-old Rosa(ph) in his arms, Byen held hands with her nine and five year olds. Then the shooting began.
Ms. BYEN: (Through translator) The Egyptians shot at us. They killed my son. This is what they think of us.
FRENKEL: Iskander was shot multiple times. A bullet went through Rosa's upper leg. Byen remembers that others in the group felt down, injured, but they ran ahead towards the wire in the darkness.
Ms. BYEN: (Through translator) I think God that the Israelis raised the wires and I crossed under but the others poor things. There were others who died.
FRENKEL: Iskander died en route to the hospital. Rosa survived. Byen talks about reuniting left over family, but she does not have the money to reach for her two oldest children who didn't make the journey with her. And with no status and no papers, she is in danger of being deported from the country she risked so much to reach. Nobody knows for certain how many others have died in journeys like Byen's. Human Rights Watch say, at least, 33 asylum seekers have been shot dead by Egyptian border guards, but those who have survived the journey say many more deaths go unreported. Hanass Jihahn(ph) is a researcher with an Israeli NGO called the African Relief Development Center. She interviews refugees who have crossed the border. Jihahn says refugees have a special significance for Israel since the country was founded by Jews fleeing persecution in other countries.
Ms. HANASS JIHAHN (African Relief Development Center): The concept of refuges linked to the Palestinians and to the Palestinian right to return. So in a way there is a fear that if we allow them to come here then perhaps the Palestinians later would say and what about us.
FRENKEL: The Israeli parliament is current debating legislation into stopping non-Jewish refugees. The draft bill was allowed immediate expulsion or imprisonment for person entering Israel without a permit. Its sponsors argue that the majority of the people arriving in Israel are economic migrants not refugees. And that Israel limited resources and geography can not accommodate them. But Byen thinks Israel is still the best option for people like her.
Ms. BYEN: (Through translator) We want the government to recognize us and to send us to another country or to give us papers so that we can work.
FRENKEL: As she speaks, Rosa walks into the room and hands her mother a map. She wants to know where America is.
For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel in Jerusalem.
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