News / Africa

Israel Seeks to Stem Flow of Non-Jewish African Migrants Across Porous Border

The migrants, mainly from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan's Darfur, are trying to find jobs in Israel, but Israeli leaders view this as a threat to security and to the Jewish character.

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In the coming days, Israel's cabinet will consider an initiative to reinforce the Jewish State's 240-kilometer border with Egypt.  The aim is to stem the flow of thousands of illegal migrants who Israeli officials say are crossing the porous border and entering the Jewish State. The migrants are mainly from the African nations of Eritrea and Ethiopia, and many are Muslims from the Darfur region of Sudan.  They go to Israel seeking jobs and safety.  For Israel's leaders, they represent a threat to security - and to the Jewish character of a country established as a safe haven for Jews from around the world.

Ahmed Badawi Batran, originally from Darfur in Sudan, is among the 19,000 people who Israeli officials say have entered Israel illegally.  He tells a familiar story, saying he left Sudan in hopes of finding work and a better life for his family.

He says he and his wife went to Egypt looking for work.  There, he says he got the idea of coming to Israel from friends who had succeeded in entering the Jewish State. From here, they said he could go on to Canada, Australia, or America. That, he says, is why he came here.

He now holds a temporary visa that he is able to renew every three months.  He, his wife and their six children have settled into a modest apartment in a rundown district of Tel Aviv near the city's bus station.

Ahmed, like thousands of others, braved the journey across the Sinai desert, dodging Egyptian border guards who routinely shoot and kill those caught trying to cross to Israel. 

On Israel's border with Egypt is the Israeli community of Kadish Barnea.  Residents Avishai and Jolanda Pinchas, sitting on a porch on their sprawling property, look across a few hundred meters to an Egyptian guard tower and the barbed wire fence that marks the border.

They say they often awakened at night by the sound of gunfire.

"You know how many times they kill refugees here?   It's horrible," Avishai Pinchas said. "When we hear these things, we know things are going on very close by. We can really hear it. Many times."

The couple in the past have taken in scores of hungry and injured Sudanese migrants and allowed them to stay in some bungalows on their property. At one point, they provided food, medicine, and shelter to as many as 55 men, women, and children.

They stopped doing so after Israeli border police started the practice of picking up migrants and taking them to a detention center where they are kept while authorities check to make sure they are not terrorists. 

The flow of migrants has continued. Officials say they are crossing at a rate of several hundred per week. Once past the Egyptian border guards, the migrants wait along the highway for Israeli police to pick them up and take them to the detention center.

One reason so many people can cross is the border fence is in some places nothing more than a single line of barbed wire.  On some stretches, the fence disappears under the sand, buried by the dunes.

Some Israelis say it is no border at all, and certainly not enough to protect a nation faced with constant terrorist threats.

This is one reason why the Pinchas welcome news of government plans to reinforce it.

"Who knows what kind of stuff has been going over, also like weapons or things like that," Jolanda Pinchas said. "We don't know. But it's open for everything right now.  Israel I think needs to do something about the border."

Her husband, Avishai, says a beefed up border may at least end the violence against migrants that he has witnessed firsthand. 

"We have so many sad stories about this border, what's going on here," Avishai Pinchas said. "You know what?  For their health, for their life, it's better for them either to stay there and not to try to cross to be beat and killed. Women and all kinds of (people) get killed there. And I feel sad about this. It's horrible."   
 
Once in the country, life for Sudanese immigrants is not easy.

Ahmed has not been able to find steady work.  He says Israelis have been kind to him and his children are getting an education as well as healthcare benefits. However, the family can never consider this home. 

Israel welcomes Jewish immigrants, but Muslims like Ahmed are not eligible for citizenship.

Knowing there is no future here for his family, he says he wants to leave.  He says a reinforced fence may be a good thing, even if it is meant to keep out migrants like himself. 

He says it is true that a reinforced barrier at the border will not allow migrants like himself to enter," Batran said. "He says he, who has managed to enter Israel, wants to depart the country.  He wonders why others want to come here, and now sees no reason for it.

In their bid to stem illegal immigration, it is a message Israel's leaders hope will resonate deep in Africa.

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