Refugees Risk Death to Reach Israeli ‘Haven’

Ali Ahmed is struggling with life in Egypt. The Somali refugee was in jail for nine months, has no job and recently got as far as the Sinai Peninsula before turning back to Cairo after plans to cross into Israel fizzled out following a run-in with police.

For many African refugees and migrants like Ali, life in Egypt is becoming unbearable, and illegal attempts to cross borders are becoming an almost daily occurrence.

Since 2006, some 13,000 Africans have entered Israel, and since June 2007, more than 30 Africans have been gunned down by border police, highlighting the ongoing struggle between rights groups and the Egyptian and Israeli governments.

Ahmed tells The Media Line at a local Somali refugee center in Cairo that he wants to get out of Egypt. He would rather "face death than continue living in a country" where he is treated as a "second-class person."

Africans in Cairo boast of friends who have succeeded in running the border gauntlet into Israel. Ahmed admits that despite abandoning his own plans to cross into Israel, he knows that success in the Jewish state can be a reality.

"I have a number of friends who have told me of the joy they are having in Israel, where they work and have a life again," Ahmed continued.

But that hope has been dashed for dozens of Africans who have been met with bullets.

One of the reasons Africans living in Egypt seek Israel is the poor conditions they experience in the country. Ranging from unemployment, racism and lack of funds, the Africans are distraught over their lives, unable to find a niche in Egypt.

Many of Egypt’s tens of thousands of refugees are Sudanese. Since 2003, nearly all the Sudanese coming into the North African nation are from the war-torn Western Sudan region of Darfur. But thousands of other Africans, including a few thousand from Somalia, have attempted to make Egypt their temporary residence.

Tawer Ali, secretary general of the Cairo-based New Sudan Research and Strategic Studies Center and community leader in the refugee-dominated town Arba’a wa Nos (Four and a Half), says that the situation facing the refugee population in Egypt has driven many to seek a better life in Israel.

"Refugees are very frustrated with the formalities of the UNHCR [because] they are slow moving. Some of them [refugees] have had eight years here, some seven years," Ali, a refugee himself, told The Media Line.

The UNHCR has officially stopped granting refugee status following a request from the Egyptian government, which has made the living situation extremely difficult for the Africans. Without U.N. refugee status, the likelihood of gaining asylum in a third nation is almost nil for thousands of refugees.

"People are losing hope," says Abdullahi Osman, a Somali refugee and head of the NGO SOMO. "I have gone to a number of embassies with people to try to get them resettled, but without the proper documentation, many countries are not willing to give people asylum. It is frustrating. [So,] without a place to call home, many have decided to find a way to get to Israel to start over."

Israel is seen as a place where lives can be recreated. Rumors of work opportunities over the past few years have created an atmosphere within the refugee community that sees the Jewish state as the haven of hope for a new life.

Israeli officials have confirmed that approximately 3,000 refugees have arrived within its borders in recent years. Many of them work in the service industry and accept lower wages.

The security situation along the border has exacerbated the grim situation for the African refugees.

Just last year, Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report on the Egyptian government’s actions against refugees along the border with the Jewish state. In the November report, the American-based rights group condemned the Egyptian state’s "shoot-to-stop" deterrence method of stopping migrants, which has been in place over the past year.

The Egyptian government claims the use of force along the lengthy desert border in the Sinai Peninsula is part of its counter-terror strategy against smuggling. But, in its 90-page report, "Sinai Perils: Risks to Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Egypt and Israel," HRW says that the migrants killed on the 130-mile (266-kilometer) border pose no threat to the border guards who have opened fire on them.

Although the report does not go as far as to claim Israel demanded that Egypt begin the "shoot-to-stop" policy, HRW does allude to a meeting between Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2007. At the meeting, the two leaders discussed new measures designed to deter refugees from seeking to enter Israel via Egypt.

"We are not saying that Israel ordered Egypt to kill people; there is no evidence of that," says HRW researcher Bill Van Esveld. "But what we are saying is that it seems that Egypt has responded to Israeli pressures with this policy of lethal force."

Currently, the going rate for hiring a Bedouin smuggler to help smuggle a refugee into Israel is around $500, half paid in advance and the other half upon entrance into Israel.

The Bedouin are more than willing to take the risks considering the amount of money involved.

"It may not seem like a lot of money, but it can go a long way, especially if we are moving four, five or more people at once," says Mahmoud, a Bedouin living near Al Arish – some 30 minutes from Gaza border – who asked that his surname remain anonymous due to security concerns.

He agrees that because life is so difficult and frustrating for the refugees and migrants in Egypt, Israel has become a haven for those wishing to start anew.

Ahmed agrees. "Why would I want to feel like a caged animal here when just on the other side of the border I can try and have a new life that is full of hope?"

The question now is whether the tension on the border will continue or if Egypt will take the necessary steps to ensure that their African guests will be able to live a life in the country with the dignity and honor they deserve, adds Ali.

"It is up to the Egyptian government to stop the refugees from trying to cross. Obviously, shooting them is not working, so maybe they should help our community in their own country instead of avoiding the problem by killing," he concludes.

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