Middle East

Israel urged to admit African migrants on Egypt border

Soldier and a group of African migrants near the border fence between Israel and Egypt
Image caption Human rights groups say they have been prevented from visiting the stranded migrants

The UN's refugee agency has called on Israel to grant entry to African migrants trapped on the country's tightly controlled border with Egypt.

Around 20 people, believed to be from Eritrea, have been stuck at the fenced desert barrier for a week.

Israel's refusal to grant them asylum "is highly irresponsible", the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said.

But the Israeli Interior Ministry said it had no legal obligation to let the migrants in.

Soldiers said they had provided those stranded with food, water and shelter from the sun, but human rights groups have so far been prevented from visiting the group, the BBC'S Kevin Connolly in Jerusalem reports.

Thousands of Africans fleeing conflicts in Eritrea and Sudan have tried to cross the border in recent years, he added.

They pay Bedouin tribesmen to lead them from Cairo through the Sinai desert into Israel.

'Shut the door'

The Israeli government has started building a 260km (160-mile) barrier on its southern border with Egypt, partly in response to the growing number of refugees.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai defended Israel's decision to reject the stranded migrants.

"If I have to choose between the good of the state, its civilians and its security, I will choose that there be a fence, that they won't enter and instead return to their country," he told local media.

"Every day there are people stuck there. If there were no fence and if we weren't steadfast, there would be a million people here."

But the commissioner for the UN's refugee agency, William Tall, said the state could not "simply shut the door".

"The most worrying thing to me is the discussion of pushing them back into Egypt, which is highly irresponsible, because if they go back to Egypt there is a high risk these people will fall in the hands of human smugglers," he said.

He added that Israel was effectively violating the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

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