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