The Africans risking all on the Egypt-Israel border

By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Cairo

image captionAn African migrant walks out of a crowded temporary structure in Israel

Motorised rickshaws wind their way through the crowded alleyways of Ard al-Lawa as street vendors call out their wares.

This poor Cairo neighbourhood is home to an increasing number of African migrants and refugees, but many do not want to stay.

In his sparsely decorated apartment, Yahya Mohamed, a refugee from Darfur in Sudan, explains how he risked everything trying to move to Israel.

"I decided to go to Israel because people who went before told me the situation was much better over there," he says.

"I left my country looking for safety and security but in Egypt I found harassment and more problems.

"Work here is difficult and they throw stones and tomatoes at me on the street. They curse at me and call me 'the black'."

Quickly spotted

Like hundreds of others each month, Yahya, 31, paid Bedouin people-smugglers to take him and his family on the risky journey to the Egypt-Israel border.

It costs more than $600 (£414) travelling by bus and then hidden on a lorry. Finally, they were left in the Sinai desert late at night.

Egyptian forces quickly spotted them.

"While we were crossing the border they opened fire," Yahya recalls.

"We surrendered and sat on the ground and they started beating us and shooting all around. My wife fainted and the kids were screaming."

Idris was arrested and imprisoned for a year. Since his release several months ago, he has been unable to find his wife and two children.

For others, the situation is even worse.

At least 16 sub-Saharan African refugees and migrants have been shot dead at the border this year. Many others suffered injuries.

Warnings ignored

"This is a common problem. When people try to cross the border to Israel, the Egyptian security shoot and kill them," comments Abdalla Hanzal, who works with a refugee support group.

"Sometimes when they do not shoot them, they arrest them and deport them. Our centre tries to report when someone's deported or put in prison."

Egyptian officials insist they only shoot at the border after those crossing ignore repeated orders to stop and point out that human-trafficking gangs carry guns.

However, the United Nations and human rights groups have asked Egypt to stop excessive force being used.

There was also criticism of a recent statement by Egypt's Foreign Ministry which pointed out that the fatalities "did not exceed 2% in 2008 and 4% in 2009 of the total number of illegal crossers".

The regional representative of the UN refugee agency, Mohamed Dayri, is hoping new policies are in the works.

"We have recently initiated a discussion with the government to provide Egypt with a set of measures and concrete proposals on humanitarian grounds how to manage this issue of the illegal crossing to Israel from Egypt," he states.

'Hot return'

For now though the problem seems to be growing.

image captionThe neighbourhood of Ard al-Lawa is home to many African migrants

A deal struck between Libya and Italy in 2009 has cut off a popular sea route to Europe for illegal African migrants and helped direct the flow towards Israel, which is seen as offering better work opportunities and more Western standards.

Increasingly Sudanese, Ethiopians and Eritreans travel directly to the border after arriving in Egypt.

Israel says the arrival of almost 15,000 refugees and asylum-seekers has put strain on security and welfare systems.

It introduced a controversial policy of "hot-returns", immediately returning migrants back across the border.

"Israel always accuses Egypt of not playing an active role to prevent smuggling and illegal immigrants entering Israeli land," says Emad Gad, an expert on Israel at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

He points out that forces are limited in this politically sensitive area under the terms of the 1979 peace deal with Israel.

"According to the peace treaty Egypt is allowed to deploy only 450 soldiers. After 2007, they increased the number to 750," he says.

"But if we speak about a border of over 240km (149 miles), it's not enough to secure it."

In January, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved plans to erect a barrier along part of the border and install surveillance equipment to keep out illegal migrants and militants.

However, back in the busy market of Ard al-Lawa, Yahya remains undeterred. He has not stopped dreaming of a new beginning in Israel.

"If I had my wife and kids, I would go through this nightmare again. When I'm older, I want to have a good life."

"If I could find a way to Italy or Canada I would go there but as far as I know this is the closest border we can reach. I only know how to get to Israel."

More on this story