The killing of three African nationals on the border with Israel this week again highlighted Egypt’s relentless policy of deterring would-be émigrés from sub-Saharan Africa–with live fire, if deemed necessary.
Egyptian border police shot an Ethiopian migrant to death today, injuring two others and arresting another ten, as they attempted to cross into Israel from Egypt, Reuters reported. On Sunday, another two African migrants–of undetermined nationality–were shot dead by Egyptian guards as they tried to cross the border into Israel, according to a security official quoted by Agence France Presse.
The latest deaths come only days after Egypt accepted a recommendation tabled at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva aimed at protecting migrants en route to Israel. The deaths bring the total number of migrants killed since the beginning of 2010 to eight. In 2009, 19 such deaths were recorded for the whole year.
According to a press statement by the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights–which participated as an observer at the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review meetings in Geneva last week–Egypt agreed to “ensure that police act with restraint unless they are in danger.” The commitment was made, however, without any explicit reference to the regular border shootings.
The practice of shooting at migrants as they are smuggled into Israel has been frequently–and harshly–criticized by human rights watchdogs. In Cairo, local rights groups have worked to assess the situation of wounded migrants and asylum seekers as a means of understanding migration trends and informing advocacy groups about them.
According to Amnesty International, the use of lethal force against migrants began in mid-2007, reportedly in response to Israeli pressure to reduce the flow of irregular migrants into its territories. Israel has also been building a wall parallel to its border with Egypt, equipped with high-tech monitoring devices, to thwart flows of African migrants. Meanwhile, legislation has been proposed in Israel’s parliament to allow for the immediate return of asylum seekers to Egypt without any review of their claims.
For Egypt, the policy of shooting at migrants touches on the sensitive issue of national security.
“When border guards shoot at migrants, they don’t know that they’re migrants. They could be very dangerous people plotting terrorist attacks across the borders,” said Fouad Allam, a retired general who headed State Security in the 1990s. “There’s a history of terrorism in the country, and in Sinai in particular, so it’s understandable that Egypt needs to protect itself and its borders.”
Allam went on to say that guards must first warn those illegally attempting to make the passage before opening fire. “When these warnings are disregarded, shootings take place,” he explained.
Ray Jureidini, director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo, pointed out that both Egypt and Israel were signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which requires a full review of migrants’ claims so as to determine whether or not they qualify as refugees.
The road to Israel via Egypt has become a focal point on maps charting irregular African migration, especially now that more traditional routes–such as Europe via Libya–have been blocked. While the trip usually begins in sub-Saharan Africa–often from Eritrea, Ethiopia or Sudan–it has also become an option for Cairo-based asylum seekers in recent years.
“When I first came here in 2007, friends told me about the way to Israel,” said Emmanuel, a Southern Sudanese refugee now resident in Egypt. “I was told that people started going right after the Mustafa Mahmoud incident in 2005.”
In December 2005, Egyptian police violently broke up a demonstration held by Sudanese asylum-seekers in Cairo’s Mustafa Mahmoud Square, killing nearly 30 people and injuring hundreds. Demonstrators had staged protests in front of the offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees against its policies for determining refugee status.
“But now, less people go–mainly because many people were caught by the police in Sinai and imprisoned. We also know about the shootings on the border,” said Emmanuel, adding "I prefer to go legally."
He went on to explain that he had qualified for resettlement in a third country, to which he will travel as soon as his visa is processed. “Those who go to the border have less chance of obtaining refugee status and resettlement rights," said Emmanuel. "That’s why they resort to this option.”
Moussa Muhammad, who lives south of the border city of Rafah–where smuggling activity thrives–has not noticed any decrease in the flow of migrants as a result of border shootings.
“Smuggling goes on every day. Shootings happen, but not all of them are shot and many manage to get through,” he said. "Smugglers have been able to find more and more migrants–it has been a lucrative business."
In a previous trip to the border area by Al-Masry Al-Youm, migrants from Eastern Sudan explained that they had been brought by an agent who had promised them well-paid jobs in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. But once they arrived, they were taken captive and forced to pay a large fee before being allowed to cross into Israel. When first setting out, many African migrants do not even realize that the trip will involve an illegal border crossing.
“What’s clear is that the policy of shooting at migrants is not serving as a deterrent,” said Jureidini, pointing to the sudden surge in the number of border deaths in the first two months of this year.
“There should be a better way to apprehend them when they try to cross the border," he said. "If this doesn’t work, Egypt should just let them go.”