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.
“That’s one of the reasons people engage smugglers,” said Michael Kagan, former senior fellow in human rights law at the American University in Cairo’s Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies. “They don’t have access to what is called a ‘durable solution,’ where they can lead a longer-term dignified life in the first country.”
While only a token number of refugees in Israel have been awarded official asylum status, leaving most in limbo, thousands have been issued temporary protection and work permits. Wages are much higher in Israel than Egypt, and those who reach Tel Aviv usually find manual labor jobs or employment in hotels, allowing a modest living and in some cases the ability to send remittance home.
Not all are so lucky. Last year Israel started cracking down on migrants and refugees within its borders, with mass arrests and new restrictions on temporary residency permits, aimed at making conditions less desirable. Nearly 2,000 asylum seekers remain in Israeli detention centers — most are recent arrivals coming via the Sinai. At least 300 have been promptly returned to Egypt after successfully crossing the border, since Israel launched a strategy of "hot return" in August of 2008 — a policy now being challenged in Israel’s supreme court.
Others don’t even make it that far — at least 50 migrants have been shot and killed by Egyptian security personnel in the sparsely populated military zone along the border since mid-2007. Human rights groups have accused Egypt of having a shoot-to-stop policy and suspect the number of deaths could be greater, as the remoteness of the area means relying primarily on government reports. Hundreds more have been arrested and imprisoned by Egyptian forces while en route to the frontier.
But success stories like Adham’s have traveled back to the conflict-ridden villages of Africa, fueling migration north. There are now over 4,500 Sudanese refugees in Israel, making them the second largest group of asylum seekers in the state, after Eritreans.
In a Cairo cafe, Simret tells about his failed attempt to cross into Israel. At 17 years old, he was arrested for practicing Pentecostalism in his native Eritrea and faced indefinite conscription to the country’s grueling military service. He fled north, staying more than one year in Sudan before coming to Egypt in search of greater security.
“When I came here I was encouraged to go to Israel,” said Simret. It only took smugglers a few days to convince him he should head for the border.
He left Cairo by night, passing several checkpoints successfully, but at the final roadblock in Sinai police arrested Simret and four others from the Horn of Africa. He spent six weeks in Egyptian detention centers fearful he would be deported to Eritrea, which has become one of Africa’s most repressive states. Egypt has returned over 1,200 Eritreans to their country, putting them at risk of lengthy detention, torture and even death.
Those heading for safer soil will likely find other, more risky, routes. The first sections of Israel’s border fence will be built along the north and south stretches of the frontier, possibly pushing refugees to take routes deeper in the Sinai’s harsh desert.
“We don’t know if it will actually reduce the number that go through there,” said Kagan. “But it’s likely it will at least make the migration route more dangerous.”
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the headline and the reference to Israel's $270 million border fence. Construction was approved in January 2010.