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From Sudan to Israel: a tough road

Up to 1,000 migrants sneak across Israel's porous borders each month.

JERUSALEM, Israel — From the top of a sand dune on the Egyptian side of the border it’s easy to see how 18,000 African asylum seekers have slipped across Israel’s desert frontier.

Khalil, one of many Sinai Bedouins involved in smuggling, points at the sparsely placed Egyptian guard posts in the distance. He says he smuggles around 20 Africans a week into Israel, usually in groups of five to 10.

Each migrant pays between $500 and $1,000 for the trip from Cairo to the border, sometimes triple that to get from their home countries into Egypt. Under the cover of night smugglers, like Khalil, drop groups in the desert about a third of a mile from the border. Often barefoot, they run across the sand toward the Jewish state.

High wages and relative security have turned Israel into something of a promised land for those fleeing conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. At one time, many refugees went no further than Egypt, but tough economic conditions and the deteriorating security there, have pushed thousands to make a run for the border. Israeli officials have said that as many as 700 to 1,000 migrants sneak across their porous Sinai frontier each month.

In an effort to stop this flow, and stem other smuggling, in January Israel approved construction of a $270 million fence outfitted with surveillance equipment for its southern border.

“This is a strategic decision to ensure the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement when he announced approval of the fence earlier this month. “Israel will remain open to war refugees but we cannot allow thousands of illegal workers to infiltrate into Israel via the southern border and flood our country."

A couple hundred miles north, in the upscale Israeli town of Zichron Yaakov, Adham, a Darfuri refugee who crossed the southern border, unpacks boxes in the simple but comfortable one-bedroom apartment he will share with his wife and two sons. From the small terrace outside, the Mediterranean Sea is almost visible a few miles away.

A group of local residents are working to provide Adham’s, and several other Sudanese families who were smuggled into Israel across the southern border, with residence permits, jobs and homes here in one of the country’s wealthiest communities.

“It’s better here,” said Adham, mixing bits of Hebrew into his thick Darfuri Arabic as he explains he went to Cairo in the hope that the United Nations refugee office would resettle him to Europe or the U.S. “But they said I will stay in Egypt.”

Previously abundant resettlement programs in Cairo have dwindled since 2005, and only the most vulnerable refugees are being resettled there.

Adham won refugee status in Egypt and tried to scrape out a living for his family in Cairo. Refugees are forbidden from working in Egypt and most of those who are able to find informal work receive little pay and lack job security. After six years, Adham gave up and arranged for himself and his family to be smuggled across the border.