African Refugees Face Peril on Egypt-Israel Border As many as 7,000 refugees from Sudan and Kenya have begun pouring into Israel through lax border crossings with Egypt. In the last year, Egyptian soldiers have killed five people — and possibly dozens more, reports Sheera Frenkel.
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African Refugees Face Peril on Egypt-Israel Border

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African Refugees Face Peril on Egypt-Israel Border

African Refugees Face Peril on Egypt-Israel Border

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Desperate immigrants illegally entering the country. A government call to seal the border. We're not talking about the U.S. border with Mexico. This is the situation in Israel. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, nearly 7,000 African refugees, some fleeing atrocities in Sudan and Kenya, have crossed through Egypt into Israel in the last year. Now, Israel is cracking down. Mass deportations and a call on neighboring Egypt to get tougher on refugees trying to cross the Israeli border illegally.

But Egyptian border police have reportedly gotten too tough, and media reports say a few days ago a 24-year-old Sudanese man was shot in the back as he tried to enter Israel. Last month, another Sudanese man and an Eritrean woman were shot dead, and two more refugees were killed at that border in January. But human rights groups suggest the number of refugees killed is likely to be higher. Joining us now to talk about what Amnesty International is calling this "excessive force immigration policy" is Sheera Frenkel, a Jerusalem-based reporter for the British newspaper The Times. Hi, Sheera. Thanks so much for being here.

Ms. SHEERA FRENKEL (Reporter, The Times): Hi. Thank You. Good morning.

MARTIN: Israel announced late last month that it would start deporting illegal migrants, and started rounding people up. Who are they targeting, and why?

Ms. FRENKEL: They're targeting, I mean - in general, we're talking about hundreds of refugees arriving nearly every week from a number of African countries. For a long time, the majority of refugees were coming from Sudan, although in recent months, Israel has seen an influx of more than a thousand refugees arriving from Eritrea. Basically, as we've seen the conflict move from African country to African country, refugees are arriving seeking asylum. They really see Israel as a sort of gateway to the West, and a way to improve their living conditions, with a better or stronger economy here, and opportunity for low-level labor jobs.

MARTIN: Now, it's important, isn't it Sheera, to distinguish between "refugee" and "migrant"? Israel is saying a lot of these people are migrants who are coming in for economic purposes, not necessarily refugees fleeing war, fleeing for their physical safety, correct?

Ms. FRENKEL: Right. It's an interesting argument because there is - at the current time, there is absolutely no law on the books in the State of Israel regarding what is a refugee, defining exactly what is a refugee. I should note at this point that the UNHCR, the UN High Commission for Refugees, and the various refugee groups working in the country, disagree over what the definition of a migrant, and what the definition of a refugee is.

Often times, these are people who come in through countries such as Sudan, or from the western province of Sudan, Darfur, who, at one point - I think by nearly every standard - would be classified as a refugee, as someone who was leaving their country of origin because their lives were in mortal danger. However, over the years, a lot of those areas have returned, they have become a bit more peaceful, a bit more safe to live in. And so their status changes to become an economic migrant, someone who knows that their country of origin probably doesn't offer them the kind of economic opportunities that could support them and their families. And so they're seeking to live in another country.

MARTIN: Now...

Ms. FRENKEL: It's hard to tell, I mean, where does the line really get drawn between someone who's sitting in front of you and saying, well, you know at home, I'll basically make enough money to provide half a meal a day for me and my family, and someone who's saying, well, in my home, Mujahedeen were running through my town and threatened my family's lives? I mean, where does that sort of mortal danger lie? Where do you put that line, I suppose?

MARTIN: Can you explain what the border looks like between Israel and Egypt? They're getting through - through the Sinai Peninsula. This is a heavily fortified border, right? Or perhaps not?

Ms. FRENKEL: Not at all. You know, there's this image of Israel because of all of the - you know, I think in media in the West especially, you see all these images of a massive concrete barrier between Israel and the West Bank. But Israel's southern border with Egypt - ever since a peace treaty was reached between the two countries, they've just got sort of a barbed wire fence, and parts of it are barely five feet high.

And so in writing about it, I often call it the "porous" southern border with Egypt because that fence is very easily infiltrated. It's guarded by a very small group of Egyptian border police on one side, and Israeli border police on the other side. But considering the stretch of area that you're talking about, even if they get an alert to say that they've spotted a group of people moving toward the border, by the time the soldiers get there, they're often across and have moved on. For years...

MARTIN: Now...

Ms. FRENKEL: I'm sorry, go on.

MARTIN: We have had - there have been media reports that have said that several people have actually been shot as they have been crossing this border. Why is this happening? How did the deal between Israel and Egypt to crack down on these illegal crossings, how has that resulted in the deaths of some people?

Ms. FRENKEL: Right. Well, the deal that was reached by the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, during the conference more than half a year ago, and it was a deal to sort of deport many of the refugees back to Egypt, but also for the Egyptian side to sort of crack down on restricting the passage of these people through the border. And, in very strong words, the Egyptian government has said, we will shoot on site any refugee who is found to be crossing the border. It should be noted also that this border has been used for years to smuggle drugs across the two countries, and for human trafficking as well.

There's been talk of closing this border and securing it for quite a while, but to see the crackdown over the past six months has been significant. There have been a handful of cases that had been reported, that I heard you mentioned earlier in the news broadcast. But quite a few human rights organizations, working both in here and in Egypt, have talked about dozens of other shootings that they've heard about through word-of-mouth on the border. Not to mention that a year ago there was an incident where Israeli soldiers had arrived at the border, and witnessed a lynching across - literary across the fence within eyesight.


Ms. FRENKEL: And I interviewed one of those soldiers, and he reported seeing soldiers, Egyptian soldiers, picking up rocks, and stones, and at one point a large piece of wood, and killing three refugees, just, you know, 20, 30 meters across the border.

MARTIN: Sheera, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. Obviously a tense issue for a country that was founded as a safe haven for refugees, so I am sure some tension in Israel. Sheera Frenkel, Jerusalem-based reporter for the British newspaper The Times. Thank you so much for sharing your reporting on this issue.

Ms. FRENKEL: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Take care.

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