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Eritrean asylum seekers trapped on Israel-Egypt border for 7th straight day

A group of some 20 Eritreans has been trapped for seven days between the Israeli and Egyptian fences in Sinai. Until Wednesday, soldiers were ordered to give them some water but no food. Activists who went there over the last several days were prevented from reaching the asylum seekers by soldiers.

Israeli fence along border with Egypt. (Yuval Ben-Ami)

UPDATE: A delegation from Physicians for Human Rights traveled to the border today [Thursday], and reported the following (translated by Sol Salbe): A battalion commander named Dolev has come to meet the PHR delegation. He only agreed to speak with two doctors – Dr Kobi Arad and Prof Mick Elkan. He told them that the army not willing to allow the delegation to enter. He himself was going to travel to the actual border (400 metres from the delegation) to see for himself the state of refugees.

He said that the army itself and soldiers have not taken the food, and that the food brought earlier by activists has remained at the military/police checkpoint. He said the army gave the refugees water, and that a medic has given them an infusion through the fence. But communications with them was problematic.

PHR doctors demanded to be allowed to reach refugees – the PHR delegation included a Tigrinya-speaking nurse – but if that could not be achieved that at least a qualified physician rather than a medic be allowed to examine the refugees so we know what their medical condition is. The commander could not explain why the army has not delivered food. He contended that the medical delegation has been stopped for “security” reasons.

The PHR’s delegation at the police checkpoint is being held up by three military jeeps, two police cars and a military police vehicle.


The group fled from Egypt to Israel, crossed the Egyptian fence into Israeli territory, and was then stopped by the fence Israel has been erecting precisely in order to stop asylum seekers such as these (in addition to the illegal smuggling of arms and drugs) from entering Israel. As Haaretz reports, soldiers have been ordered to prevent the group from crossing the new fence, and for six days now have only given the asylum seekers little water and fabrics for protection from the sun – but no food. Two of the women who reached the fence were pregnant, and one of them has reportedly already suffered a miscarriage during the long stay in the sun.

According to Haaretz, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said Wednesday that “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. Don’t ask what we would do with a million refugees here – excuse me, migrant workers.”

A small group of Israeli activists took a car from Tel Aviv to the border Tuesday night, carrying substantial amounts of food for the asylum seekers. Upon arrival the activists were able to contact some Egyptian soldiers on the other side, who confirmed the asylum seekers’ presence in the area. Egyptian soldiers have been known in the past to shoot at asylum seekers near the border, and Egypt is notorious for having returned refugees, including from Eritrea, to their countries of origin.

The activists moved on, only to run into an IDF patrol. Soldiers confirmed the earlier reports that they were only allowed to give the people behind the fence water, not food. None reported disobeying the order. The commander of the force showed the activists a closed military zone order, and sent them away after taking the food they brought and promising to check with his superiors if he is allowed to bring the food to the starving people. A second group of activists went to the border this morning and was also turned away. The IDF spokesperson unit has not yet responded to the question of whether or not the food was transferred. (See UDPATE below)

Meanwhile the International Committee of the Red Cross is starting to get involved, and Israeli experts on international law warn that stopping asylum seekers from entering the country and making their claim for asylum is a breach of binding treaties to which Israel is a signatory. Israeli NGOs are now preparing to file an urgent petition to the High Court demanding the asylum seekers be allowed into the country.

My own estimation is that Israel will not let the asylum seekers die in the absurd prison in which they are caught. Eventually they will be let in. The cynical point of this extremely cruel behavior echoes what Interior Minister Eli Yishai continues to emphasize: that the aim of Israeli policy is to make life unbearable for the asylum seekers, who cannot be deported due to a severe risk to their lives in their countries of origin – mainly Sudan and Eritrea – and therefore should be dissuaded from attempting to enter Israel in the first place.

As the majority of asylum seekers in Israel come from Eritrea, and as the state offers them collective protection from deportation without checking their individual refugee claims while at the same time forbidding them from working, it is worth mentioning that the global recognition rate for Eritreans as refugees stands at 93 percent. Those making the journey from Egypt to Israel are at serious risk of being kidnapped by a sophisticated smuggling network for ransom, torture, rape, organ harvesting and death. Just today, Human Rights Watch published a detailed account of the atrocities committed by the smugglers, and called on Egypt to crack down on the networks.

As Eritrean activist and asylum seeker Isayas Teklebrhan recently said in a demonstration outside the newly built desert jail for asylum seekers: “We did not go through all this to find a job in Tel Aviv. We took on all this suffering and anxiety to find dignity and life. To find hope. Because once hope is dead you die with it as a human being… We plea for your mercy, we plea for your protection, we ask you as humans to humans – for dignity.”

[UDPATE 20:32: IDF spokesperson unit response:

Following the directives of the political branch and the the decisions of the Israeli government IDF forces are working to prevent illegal entry into the Israeli territory on the Western border. Construction of a fence along the border is in these days being completed. On the Western side of the fence, facingEgypt, stays in recent days a group of foreigners whose entry intoIsraelis prevented thanks to this fence. For humanitarian reasons IDF forces are offering the foreigners water through the fence.

An IDF source also added that as of today asylum seekers will also be offered food.]

Here is a a video report from the border by Lia Taranchansky for The Real News.

More at The Real News

Read our special coverage on Seeking Asylum in Israel

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    1. BOOZ

      As a Frenchman, I have a vivid recollection of 1988 and the then-prime minister Michel Rocard’s statement about illegal immigration :

      “France cannot assume all the misery of the world , but our country has to take its fair share of it”.

      Right of (economic) asylum issue is not specific to Israel , but is common to all developped countries. It has to do with pressure on public spending, housing, education… and the global consensus in the society as to the identity of the nation.

      Using the issue as further evidence against “zionism” would be IMHO disingenuous.

      Haggai, where do you place the cursor as to the fair share of the misery of the world?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

      become refuge seekers when they cross the Eritrean border. When they move beyond that, they are economic migrants. That is the actual international law and everyone knows that.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Kolumn9

      They are still in Egypt, that is why they don’t have the same rights to protection as people who actually cross the border. Somebody should really phone the Egyptian refugee/human rights organizations and get them to feed these poor people that are sitting in their country. It is a travesty that somebody should find refuge in Egypt from the harsh conditions in their home countries and not have any help coming for them from the Egyptian organizations. Next Israel is going to get blamed for an Eritrean that is going hungry in Sharm el-Sheikh, then in Port Said and then in Cairo and eventually in Asmara. Seriously, what is wrong with you people? You can no longer even claim that these people are in Israel, because they are not. And no, there is absolutely no legal convention that forces a country to open its borders to economic migrants, because these people are not refugees by the time they get to Israel as they have already crossed two international borders. They are most certainly out of immediate danger by the time they get to Egypt.

      Reply to Comment
      • K9 – The Eritrean asylum seekers are not in Egyptian territory. They are caught between two layers of Israel’s new border fence.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Sorry Lisa. You are wrong here. They are most clearly on the other (read Egyptian) side of the fence, and despite your claim there is only one layer of the Israeli fence. The best you can do is claim that they are in some kind of no-man zone but they are not in Israel. In either case, Israel is under no obligation to let them in, and even according to the 1951 convention it is only obligated to allow in refugees ‘at the frontiers of their countries of origin’. Eritrea is two frontiers away..

          Reply to Comment
          • K9 – I don’t believe you read Hebrew, so I will translate this Ynet item
            for you:

            Headline: The state confirms: the asylum seekers near the fence are in Israeli territory

            Text: “The state’s attorney for the petition to the High Court regarding the refugees, Attorney Yochi Gennasin, said that the fence on the Egyptian border is located within Israeli territory. She explained, “It is impossible to build a fence within Egyptian territory.”

            Now, as I said before, this is not the first time you have trolled the comments section on +972 with false claims, which you repeat without any evidence. I’m not warning you again. Be gone with you.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Lisa, you are being very picky about choosing what it is that you post in a rebuttal and then you claim that I am trolling?

            If you bothered to post the rest of the state’s case you would notice that for legal purposes the fence by international law forms the boundary of the state. Would you be honest enough to admit that this is part of the same case that was presented that you have bother to quote out of context?

            Reply to Comment
      • If the refugees are caught between two layers of fence an Israeli territory, then the decision to leave them trapped without food, with little water, is likely a violation of the treaty of which Israeli is a signatory; once they have entered Israel, the presumption must be a claim of asylum. Placing troops on Egyptian territory to push back oncoming refugees does not violate the treaty.

        All of this is sick, and will always be sick. The State is correct that it cannot open its boarders indefintely. The activists are correct in crying a need on the ground. Under Clinton, the US sent back Haitian refugees who had risked their lives crossing in unstable boats; I am certain some sent back died early. The treaty is a game. Some will have better lives thereby; others will be dodged by the State. The law becomes a whimsical God.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Except they are not trapped between two layers of Israeli fences. They are parked on the other side of the Israeli border and are not on Israeli soil and have no right to be allowed into Israel. There is no international obligation under which Israel is obligated to allow entry into its borders to Eritreans even if there may be an international consensus on the prohibitions of deportations back to Eritrea. Eritrea is not a neighboring state. By the time these migrants get to Israel they have already gone through two states in neither of which they were in immediate danger and in one of which they could claim legitimate refugee status.

          Reply to Comment
          • If Lisa, above is wrong, then indeed Israel may let them starve outside of Israel, even if, in weakness, they cannot hop back to brutal Egypt. I suspect the treaty (which, certainly, was signed by Israel in support of Jews fleeing persecution) does implicitly (at least) call for ports of entry for claim of asylum; but nothing can mandate helping them get to said port.


            Reply to Comment
          • Again, K9, your information is incorrect. The Eritrean asylum seekers are not on Egyptian territory. I believe you have been warned already about repeating misinformation in comment threads on this site. Don’t do it again.

            Reply to Comment
          • K9- I have responded to your comment, above. You are trolling this thread with false statements. Repeating them does not make them correct. Off you go now.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Gil Franco

      As horrible as this story is, it is good news that the government has responded to the public pressure to provide food and water to these unfortunate people. Please keep it up until the government lives up to its legal responsibility to provide them with safe haven.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        It is also good news that the government responded to the public pressure to prevent the influx of illegal work migrants into Israel. Israel is under no obligation whatsoever to provide asylum to Eritreans trying to cross the border from Egypt and it is certainly not under any obligation to open its gates to any and every work migrant on the planet.

        Reply to Comment
        • Actually, public pressure is in favor of allowing these refugees in. So there goes your second stupid argument.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Lisa, do you really want to go and compare polls on the Israeli public’s position on what to do about illegal migrants? Because I would gladly accept this challenge and you already know that the vast majority of Israelis want the migrants prevented form entering and thrown out of the country once they have entered. Go ahead, call me a troll, but present the polls to support your position that the government is not acting entirely and completely from within a public consensus on keeping the migrants out.

            Reply to Comment
    5. The State has now admitted that these trapped people are in Israeli territory. That means they must be granted an asylum hearing; and that means that their current treatment amounts to what would be criminal abuse if done by private individuals: trapping people, with little food or water, in desert heat, with no way to get out; for now “out” means into Israel until an asylum determination can be made. Their presence is a plea under international treaty and cannot be denied, once in Israel.

      The God of Law is not on your side this day, K9. The outcome is somewhat arbitrary, but that’s what happens at international borders.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Greg, the state has admitted that the fence was built on Israeli territory (as it can only be built) and constitutes the legal border of the state of Israel. Unless you can explain to me how practically a fence can be built on exactly the border without infringing on Egyptian sovereignty you will have to accept that by international convention the fence constitutes a legal border.

        Reply to Comment