African Refugees Seen As ‘Major Problem’ for Israel

By Julie Stahl | September 19, 2008 | 11:31 AM EDT

Jerusalem ( – Although they risk being shot by Egyptian troops at the border, African refugees and migrants fleeing persecution or just looking for jobs have continued to flood Israel’s porous southern border from Egypt.
A year ago, the Israeli government estimated that there were some 2,800 African refugees/migrants in Israel.
According to the Refugees’ Rights Forum, a group of eight nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have banded together to deal with African border-breachers, there are currently about 12,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Israel – among them about 4,900 from Eritrea and 4,400 from Sudan.
It’s a “very major problem,” Defense Ministry spokesman, Shlomo Dror told
There are a lot of problems sending them back to where they came from. Many of them are not really refugees. Among those stealing across the border are traffickers in women, drug smugglers and migrant workers, Dror said.
Israel’s 132-mile border with Egypt winds primarily through desert terrain and is completely open. Israel has discussed the idea of putting up a security fence along the border but it is a costly project and would take years to complete.
Israel initially was caught off guard by the influx of Sudanese refugees that began as a trickle three years ago, after Egyptian police killed a number of Sudanese refugees demonstrating outside the United Nations headquarters in Cairo.
Israel put them in prison for lack of an alternative and then placed many on communal farms or gave them jobs in hotels. When word got out that Israel – the only democracy in the Middle East and the most prosperous country in the area – was giving jobs to asylum-seekers, thousands more started to sneak across the border.
Israel has tried discourage the would-be aliens from crossing the border.
Last year, the Israeli government decided to accept about 500 Sudanese refugees who were already here from Darfur but said it would deport all the others. There were some deportations – to Egypt -- but when reports emerged that Egypt had broken a pledge not to send the refugees back to Sudan, the deportations apparently stopped.
A year ago, Egyptian police implemented a policy of shooting anyone caught attempting to cross the border. At least 28 people have been shot and killed trying to breach the border since the beginning of the year, Amnesty International says.
Earlier this year, Israeli lawmakers worked on passing a law that would sentence all those who sneak across the border to serious jail time.
Israeli human rights groups that have taken up the plight of the refugees are upset by reports that Israel has now implemented a policy of “hot return,” said Sigal Rozen, spokeswoman for Refugees’ Rights Forum.
“Hot return” means that refugees caught crossing the border are immediately returned without first ascertaining whether they are truly in danger, Rozen said.
That violates Israel’s own commitment to question them and determine if they are indeed refugees who need protection or simply opportunistic job seekers, Rozen told
According to Rozen, Israel still has not trained specialists to interview those who come across the border.
One Israeli reservist complained to the Defense Ministry after serving on the border in August. He wrote that soldiers had returned several Africans across the border with Egypt without getting any information about who they were or why they were fleeing.
“We behaved as if we were trying to sweep these guys under the carpet as quickly as possible,” wrote the reservist.
“You do not have to be a genius to work out that if someone is willing to go through all this hassle to cross the desert empty-handed with only the clothes on their back, and to be shot at by the Egyptians, all to reach a country they know nothing about – then there must be something very wrong where they came from,” he said.
The army admitted that it had returned dozens of Africans in August but said it was a one-time mistake and wouldn’t happen again.
Rozen claimed that the practice has continued.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said there was no change in the Israeli policy on the matter.
“People arriving illegally in Israel are of course taken for questioning,” Regev told That is also necessary for security reasons, he said.
If it is determined that they are illegal immigrants from a country that the United Nations has said is dangerous for them to be returned to, then they are interned in Israel, Regev said.
Last year a Palestinian suicide bomber, who killed three people in an attack in the southern coastal city of Eilat, crossed from the Gaza Strip into the Egyptian Sinai Desert and then back across the border into Israel.