African asylum seekers stranded in limbo between Egypt, Israel

Nada El-Kouny, Thursday 6 Sep 2012

As sub-Saharan African migrants remain stuck in 'no-man's land' on Egypt-Israel border, reports emerge of Israeli military activity deep inside Egypt's Sinai Peninsula

IDF soldier stands guard over a group of Eritrean migrants, near the Israel-Egypt border (Photo: Reuters)

Twenty Eritrean migrants have been stranded at the Egypt-Israel border for one week, with Israeli authorities refusing to allow their entry into the country since the migrants were intercepted on 30 August.  

The group, which reportedly includes two women and a child, has had little access to food, with Israeli authorities only providing water. The migrants have refused to return to Egypt and are currently stuck in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in an area dubbed 'no-man's land.'  

Israeli fences

The Tel Aviv regime has recently reduced the flow of immigration, carrying out major crackdowns and arrests of undocumented immigrants found on its territory. Israel has also gone so far as to deport several refugees back to their home countries.

In July, 127 South Sudanese migrants were flown back to Juba, the capital of newly-independent South Sudan. The move was supposed to be the first of several scheduled deportations of illegal migrants from Israel, after Israeli authorities deemed the newly-created state of South Sudan safe for their return.

African migrants in Israel have also recently reported increased cases of discrimination. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, stated in May that "illegal infiltrators flooding the country" were threatening the security and identity of the self-proclaimed "Jewish state."

The wave of illegal immigration, Netanyahu said, threatened the "social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity."

According to Israel's immigration authority, a total of 62,000 African migrants had reportedly entered the state as of May of this year. Israel has a total population of 7.8 million.

Egypt turning a blind eye

Egyptian authorities – which have long had a reputation for discriminating against African migrants and adopting a 'shoot-to-kill' policy when dealing with migrants at the borders – have come in for renewed criticism due to the reported rise of human trafficking activity in the peninsula.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday issued a report calling on Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to crack down on the phenomenon.

"Human Rights Watch has documented the trafficking of the mostly sub-Saharan migrants and asylum seekers in Sinai, who are tortured and sexually assaulted to press their relatives for ransom," the report read.

Moreover, the report cited "credible groups" in Cairo familiar with the situation who said that, over the past five months, they had confirmed at least 53 cases in which Eritreans – including 19 children – had been held and abused by Sinai traffickers. They further stated that kidnappers had demanded $33,000 to take each migrant to the border with Israel.

In the latest case, the Egyptian authorities have washed their hands of responsibility, asserting that the refugees were now on Israeli – not Egyptian – territory.

Tel Aviv, for its part, threw the ball back into Cairo's court, stating that Egypt – as a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees – was ultimately responsible for absorbing asylum seekers and determining their refugee status.

The 1951 convention obliges all signatory countries to allow asylum seekers onto its territory before determining their refugee status. The convention also states that refugees are not to be deported if there is any danger of their facing persecution back home.

Israeli news website Ynet on Thursday reported that the influx of immigrants had fallen by some 90 per cent since Israel built its border fence.

As reported by UK daily The Guardian, an Israeli government spokesman recently declared that, "according to international practices and binding precedents, the fence is a de facto border." Therefore, anyone found outside that border will be considered outside Israeli territory, the spokesman clarified.   

Egypt-Israel military cooperation

While both the Israeli state and the Egyptian authorities have attempted to relieve themselves of responsibility for the migrant's plight, recent reports suggest that cross-border military and intelligence coordination are being carried out between Egypt and Israel.

Last month – following the deadly 5 August attack near Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip that left 16 border guards dead – reports, most notably from AP and HRW, cited unconfirmed sources as saying that Israeli troops had entered Egypt's Sinai Peninsula to pre-empt "infiltrators" from entering Israeli territory.

Egypt, for its part, has since denied that any such operation took place, according to a 10 August AP report that cited an anonymous military source.

The Sinai Peninsula has been regarded as a military zone since the signing of the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. The treaty tightly restricts Egyptian military deployments throughout the strategic region, especially near the fraught border with Israel.  

On 2 September, Egyptian authorities stated that suspected Israeli Mossad agents had entered Sinai with the aim of assassinating a jihadist militant, Ibrahim Owida Nasser Madan, suspected of carrying out attacks in Israel last year.

The operation reportedly took place 15 kilometres into Egyptian territory. It was the first reported Israeli operation on Egyptian soil since 1979.

In the meantime, although several rights groups – including the UN High Commission for Refugees – have called on Israel to allow the Ethiopian migrants immediate entry, Tel Aviv has remained adamant in its refusal to do so.  

Israel's High Court on Thursday ignored a petition filed by the "We are Refugees" organisation, meaning that the hapless migrants will most likely remain in 'no-man's land' until Sunday at least.

Egypt, for its part, has continued to maintain its silence on the issue.

Short link: