|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