31 August 2008

Israel deports African migrants to Egypt in crackdown

By Cynthia Johnston, Reuters

CAIRO, Aug 31 2008 (Reuters) - Israel has forcibly returned to Egypt dozens of African migrants who had slipped into the Jewish state, and rights activists say they fear some are refugees who risk torture if Egypt sends them home as expected. Egyptian security sources said Israel had returned 48 migrants of Eritrean, Sudanese and Senegalese nationality to Egypt this month, and that Cairo planned to deport them all. The Israeli returns come as Egypt is under scrutiny by rights groups over its deportations of up to 1,200 Eritrean asylum seekers in June. The United Nations objected to the deportations, saying the Eritreans could face torture at home. "It's clearly a flagrant violation of international law," Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said of the Israeli move. He said the returns meant the migrants were now certain to be deported by Egypt "to countries where they face a serious threat of detention, torture and even the death penalty".

An Israeli army spokesman confirmed that the army had handed "an undisclosed number of African refugees" to Egypt and said Israel planned to deport 27 more migrants caught on Sunday. "They have not been returned to Egypt yet but will be after the army coordinates their return with Egyptian authorities," the spokesman said. He did not give the nationalities. Activists say Eritreans had surpassed Sudanese as the largest group of African migrants in Israel. Nearly all arrive via Egypt and include Pentecostal Christians fleeing religious persecution and others trying to avoid military service. Many African migrants are not keen to stay in Egypt, where they face racism and economic marginalisation, activists say.


Egypt for years tolerated tens of thousands of African migrants on its territory, but its attitude soured in recent months after it came under pressure to halt a rising flow of Africans across the sensitive Sinai border with Israel. Egypt cracked down hard in June, and its deportations of probable refugees were its largest in decades. Egyptian police have also shot dead at least 20 African migrants at the border this year, most of them Eritrean, Ivorian or Sudanese.

Activists said Eritreans returned by Israel were particularly at risk, citing an Amnesty International report that 740 of the Eritreans sent by Egypt to Eritrea in June were then held without charge and sent to military camps and prisons. London-based Amnesty said it was "seriously concerned" over the well-being of those detainees and added that they were at grave risk of torture. Egypt's Foreign Ministry has criticised the "Western wail" over the migrants and says Cairo was simply trying to balance its security needs with respect for international obligations.

Anat Ben Dor, head of the refugee rights clinic at Israel's Tel Aviv University, said she had filed a request in court for an injunction to stop Israel from deporting more migrants. "I would say that given what's been going on in Egypt recently, Eritreans should be treated as people at risk, and probably Sudanese as well," she said. A spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency said UNHCR was aware of reports of deportations of migrants from Israel, but had no official confirmation of the returns. (Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr in Jerusalem; Writing by Cynthia Johnston, editing by Jonathan Wright and Mary Gabriel)