12:55pm , Tuesday 19th January 2021

International Gangs Smuggle African Migrants from Egypt into Israel

7 March 2010

They carry the hope of finding a better life in Israel, but their journey is full of dangers; they risk being shot down and killed by the Egyptian police before they reach the barbed wire that separates the Sinai Peninsula from the Negev desert. For those who have lost their faith in living a decent life at home, taking such a risk, is better than waiting for the unknown in Egypt or returning to troubled Darfur in west Sudan.

This is at least what Seddiq Abkar believes, despite the fact that his wife was killed in mid 2007 during an aborted attempt to cross the border. She was shot dead by the Egyptian police, while he got arrested and served one year in Qanater prison.

Siddiq considers himself a victim of the miserable humanitarian situation in Darfur and of human traffickers. Smugglers, he says, failed to protect him and his family during their crossing despite the high price they usually receive from Sudanese and other Africans aspiring to migrate to Israel.

“If it were not for my daughter, I would have tried again. Here I face a slow death … those of my friends who succeeded in crossing the borders live a much better life,” he says.  Siddiq is in his thirties and holds the “blue card” of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that grants him and his daughter a refugee status in Egypt. She was 20-month old when her mother died.

Nonetheless, he keeps the phone number of the smuggler who planned his trip to Sinai, and all he wishes now is to migrate with his daughter to a western country.

Siddiq paid $ 1,000 to Mohammad, the Bedouin agent who regularly visited the Sudanese migrants usually found gathered in areas such as downtown Cairo, Agouza district, and the 6th October city.

Within one week of their first contact, the agent put Siddiq’s family with a number of other African immigrants on a microbus that took them to Sinai. There they were left to their own fate some 500 meters from the borders.

“We were 36 Africans of different nationalities. We tried to cross the border in May (of 2007). Fourteen among us succeeded, and five were killed including my wife. The others were arrested,’ he recalls.

Franco, a young Sudanese, came close to death near the barbed wire fence where he was shot in the left hand. He still remembers that night in the winter of 2007. He was among a group of migrants. The Bedouins drove them to the borders and asked them to run fast towards it. Egyptian police spotted them and ordered them to stop, but they ignored the call and were shot at before they reached the fence. The police drove Franco to Al-Arish hospital to treat his wound. He was later prosecuted and sentenced to one year in jail, which he served in Qanater prison.

Franco is from Juba and was seeking asylum in a Western country. On a friend’s advice, he left the capital of Southern Sudan and came to Egypt, where an agent helped him find shelter in Ain Shams district in north-east Cairo. A while later, the agent took him to al-Arish city where he stayed with some Bedouins for a few days before attempting to cross the border.

“I did not hesitate … Many migrants succeed in crossing the border after a few tries, there one can start a new life,” he says.

When Franco was brought back to Cairo, his wound was not totally healed and he has been followed up by a French physician working with Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

He has since obtained the status of refugee, but the support he receives from the UNHCR “is not enough,” he says.

Siddiq and Franco are but two examples among hundreds of young Africans who try to infiltrate into Israel. The number of those is on the increase regardless of the peril they face, and they would still want to try getting to Israel even after they have obtained refugee status in Egypt.

International gangs exploit the suffering of the African migrants they ferry to Sinai for relatively huge amounts of money, says Mohmmad Hamdi, a lawyer with the Association for the Assistance of Refugees in Cairo.

Smugglers have come up with another way to help illegal migrants infiltrate into Israel. Ethiopians and West Africans are brought to Egypt as tourists.

“I came to Sharm el Sheikh as a tourist. An agent in Addis Ababa gave me a phone number which I called upon arrival,” says Bonas Tiera.

The agent, who was in north Sinai, “asked me to take a bus heading to Cairo. I had to get off at a cafeteria close to Nakhl city (some 180 km from Sharm el Sheikh) on the road, in the middle of Sinai. There he took my papers and drove me in a double cabin car to the border. When I tried to cross, the police arrested me.”

Salman, an alias, is a 26-year-old agent, who operates in Sinai. He thinks that the smuggling business is beneficial for both parties. “We take money in exchange for solving the economic and social problems of those Africans. This service does not cause any harm to the government, so they should not fight it,” he says.

Salman showed us a video clip in which a group of Africans were smuggled into Israel last May. The migrants were videoed while walking in daylight towards the border in a place marked by a mobile network antenna in Egyptian territory.

The smuggler accompanied us to the same site where he explained in detail the adventure that might have helped the migrants infiltrate to the other side, or caused them being shot dead or arrested by the police.

Their adventure starts in Sudan, Salman explains. There, those willing to cross the border pay between $100-$500 to agents who put them on cargo boats that sail to the High Dam in Upper Egypt after crossing Nasser Lake from Sudan. Others may take the old road of Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) in the Eastern desert. They pass through Wadi Halfa, travelling up until Kassassine city in Ismailia governorate, in north-east Egypt, on the west bank of the Suez Canal.

This way, agents avoid passing through Cairo. “The journey takes three days in four wheel drive cars that Bedouins use to cross the desert. Once in Kassassine, they cross to Sinai in ferries or on the bridge of Peace over the Suez Canal. Then they take the road of al-Gafgafa until near the border fence,” Salman explains.

Smugglers use night vision goggles to monitor police movement near the border. They may even shoot to dissuade the police from interfering, he adds.

In the early 2000s, while the civil war was still raging in Southern Sudan and immediately after the onset of the Darfur conflict in 2003, “most migrants willing to cross to Israel were from Sudan and Eritrea. Lately we have been seeing more Ethiopians and Ghanaians among them,” the smuggler says.

Smugglers have succeeded in recruiting African migrants who live in Cairo to work with them.  African migrants “represent now about 50% of smugglers and live in Mohandessin and at Jisr al Suez districts.” Salman explains.

The Internet and mobile phones are mostly used to coordinate the operations, while money is transferred through Western Union company and international banks, and sometimes by hand. “Those who don’t pay the whole amount agreed upon do not cross,” Salman says.

The young smuggler would not elaborate on the matter, nor would he comment on reports by medical sources and human rights activists regarding the miserable fate of those who fail to pay the smugglers’ fees.

“We treated many Africans who were shot by Bedouins and not by the police,” a physician at al-Arish General Hospital, who asked not to be named, tells Al Masry Al Youm.

The physician recalls that on August 15, 2009, “a car stopped in front of the central hospital of Rafah (north-east Sinai near the border with Gaza Strip) and immediately left after dropping on the road a young Ethiopian shot in the shoulder. We knew later that Bedouin smugglers tortured him because he failed to pay the agreed upon fee to help him cross the border.”
Al Masry Al Youm got access to the medical reports of African migrants who were treated in Al Arish and Rafah hospitals from wounds and injuries during their attempts to infiltrate into Israel.
The same physician says that torture methods, such as hanging them on trees and tying their hands with chains and electric wires, were used to punish them.

It is difficult to estimate the real number of African migrants and refugees in Egypt.

Some 41,400 refugees had obtained the UNCHR blue card by September 2009. Sudanese form the largest group, with 22,689 registered refugees. Of those, 35 percent originate from Southern Sudan. Somalis come second, numbering around 6,280.

Yousef Sharqaoui, the assistant to the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Refugee Affairs, confirms to Al Masry Al Youm that about 42,000 refugees are registered with the UNCHR in Egypt, and that 58 percent of them are Sudanese.

“The number of illegal migrants is unknown,” he says.

Sharqaoui stresses that “registered refugees enjoy in Egypt all civil and economic rights in compliance with the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. They are not placed in holding centers.”

He emphasizes that a delegation from the African Union Sub-Committee for Refugees visited Egypt last January and expressed satisfaction regarding refugees’ conditions in the country.

“It is difficult to establish an accurate record because they illegally enter the country then try to register with the Directorate of Immigration and Passports” at the Egyptian Ministry of Interior, explains Jaser Abdel Razeq, spokesperson of the Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA).

In addition to Sudanese and Somalis, “Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants also use Egypt as a transit point to better places. They think they can reach Israel safely and with only minimal risks because the country used to accept refugees from Darfur between 2004 and 2007,” says Abdel Razeq.

Israel has changed its policy in the meantime, and is no longer accepting refugees from Darfur and Southern Sudan. Moreover, it announced in January 2010 that it would build two massive fences with electronic surveillance along its 210-kilometer southern border with Egypt to stem the growing flood of African asylum seekers. The fences would begin at Kerem Shalom crossing south of Rafah and end at Israel’s resort town of Eilat, near Egypt’s Taba.

“Economic problems are the most important motive for refugees to seek asylum, but some of them, such as minority Pentecostal groups from Eritrea flee religious persecution and fear torture in case they return to their country or are extradited by Egypt,” says Abdel Razeq.

Egyptian authorities are reluctant to submit information on the number of migrants arrested near the border or extradited to their countries.

The Ministry of Interior and Prison Authority refused to divulge information regarding the number of imprisoned refugees.

Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accuse Egypt of mishandling refugees trying to infiltrate into Israel.

Sharqaoui declines to comment directly on those accusations but says that “Egypt does not use excessive force (against illegal migrants.) Infiltration cases are dealt with in the framework of the law in order to protect the border.”

He says that “the problem of illegal migrants won’t be resolved unless the countries they originate from are stabilized.”

“International criminal organizations facilitate this human trafficking and there is a need for coordinated international effort to dismantle them.”

Despite police patrols on the border, Africans are still getting shot at or arrested every week south of Rafah or near the international border in Sinai. In the meantime, Israel is enhancing its border control to stop the flow of illegal migration into its territories.

Security measures alone won’t stop illegal migration unless the problem is treated at its social, economic and political roots. Africans, who suffer from poverty and the consequences of conflicts, prefer to risk their lives attempting to cross the barbed wire between Egypt and Israel than dying slowly in Darfur and elsewhere.

This investigative report was published with the cooperation of ARIJ (www.arij.net), and under the supervision of Yahia Ghanem


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