Eritrean Yirgalam Beyene's tired eyes swell with tears as she recalls the day her son was killed. One night in April 2008, Beyene found herself lying in the cold sand of Egypt's vast Sinai desert, nervously eyeing the barbed-wired fence that separated her from her destination: Israel. Only a few hundred meters away, the fence along the border was low enough to jump. But Beyene, who was there with her three children and a group of some 20 asylum seekers from Eritrea, Darfur and southern Sudan, knew that before they reached the other side they would have to get past the armed Egyptian border police.
As the group approached the fence, recalls Beyene, she heard warning shouts from Egyptian border guards and then shots. Terrified, she kept running and jumped over the fence with her youngest son, 7-year-old Mulugeta. As she turned around, she saw that 21-year-old Iskender and his 3-year-old sibling Rosa, whom he was carrying on his back, had been shot. "I shouted for Iskender to jump over the fence and he did. That's when the Israeli soldiers took them to hospital. After four days, my son died," Beyene says. Rosa, who reveals a bullet-wound scar the size of a large coin on her right leg, looks on mutely. Her mother says she has hardly spoken since that night 18 months ago.
Beyene is one of almost 17,000 people currently seeking asylum in Israel. Over the past two years, as routes to Europe through Libya and Morocco have closed off or become more difficult to traverse, thousands of migrants have headed to Israel. But the route, which usually takes them from the Horn of Africa through Egypt's Sinai region and then across the border, has its own dangers. In Europe, coast-guard patrols might try to turn back boats full of refugees and asylum seekers, or detain people only to send them home later. The luckiest ones may end up being accepted for asylum and then dispatched around Europe.
In Egypt, the response can be more immediate. Nongovernmental organizations such as the Hotline for Migrant Workers and the African Refugee Development Center say that Egyptian border police have shot dead several hundred migrants seeking to cross the border into Israel for work and asylum over the past few years. "From both Israeli soldiers and refugees who crossed the border we can tell for sure that the Egyptians almost always shoot, they shoot to kill and very often they hit the asylum seekers," says Sigal Rozen of Hotline, an independent group that helps asylum seekers in Israel. At the Israeli cemetery in Hazor, Rozen points to 25 graves marked "Anonymous." "These were asylum seekers," she says, "who were shot by the Egyptians and died from their wounds in Israel."
Egyptian officials say security concerns justify their actions. They claim Islamist militants and drug smugglers use the same routes and that bedouin passers, whom the asylum seekers pay to smuggle them to Israel, sometimes fire at the border guards. Cairo has also come under pressure from the Israeli government to halt the increasing number of migrants crossing the border. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki says Cairo is doing everything it can to strike a balance between the humane treatment of the asylum seekers and the protection of its borders. "This is a vast desert area, manned by fewer troops than you may think. When our troops see individuals at night, they ask them to stop through loudspeakers. If the individuals fail to do that, we fire in the air. After that, they are forced to shoot at the individuals."
"This practice is the same when it comes to women and children," Zaki says. "I don't know what they want to go to Israel for anyway."
David Gilinski, an Israeli soldier who patrols the border area near Israel's Ketsiot camp, where refugees are held for several months after entering the country, says the shooting is routine. "Our job at the border is to prevent illegal arms and drugs entering Israel, but most of the time we end up dealing with refugees, even though that's not the army's job," he tells TIME. "During heated periods, we hear shots fired three, four times per week," Gilinski says. "Out of groups of maybe 10, only one or two get through the border. The others are shot at or surrender and return to Egypt."
The ordeal is not over even when refugees make it to Israel. Sigal Rozen says Israel operates an unofficial "hot return" procedure, under which it deports asylum seekers to Egypt provided they crossed within a certain area of the border. Rozen says this policy is illegal by international law "as Israel receives no guarantee that these people will be treated humanely on the other side."
Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told TIME that hot return had been approved by both the Israeli and Egyptian justice systems, with the knowledge of the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) in the region. "We know for a fact that most of these people are not asylum seekers. Some of them are, but most are illegal immigrants," he added. However, the UNHCR has condemned the procedure. On Nov. 26, in comments on an ongoing case before Israel's high court, UNHCR said that Egypt is not safe for asylum seekers. It mentions the regular imprisonment by Egypt of asylum seekers; "numerous" reports that Egypt deports some asylum seekers back to their home countries in breach of international law; and the "disturbing" shootings at asylum seekers, as reasons for Israel to stop hot return.
Last year, an anti-infiltration bill that would legalize the practice and allow the deportation of any individual who illegally enters the country passed its first reading in the Knesset. The law, if it passes, will also make it legal to imprison asylum seekers from Sudan. As citizens of one of Israel's enemies, they would be considered "enemy nationals" and could face up to seven years in prison. "Israel is trying to make the country appear inhospitable to dissuade another mass flow of asylum seekers from Egypt," says Rozen. On Dec. 8, Israeli media reported government plans to build a wall along the border, specifically to keep African migrants out.
But that's unlikely to stop people trying. For 25-year-old Adam Khamise, who fled the war-torn Sudanese province of Darfur and arrived in Israel in July 2007, the choice was clear. "In Egypt I was always being harassed by the police and I wasn't allowed to work. So how could I make money to buy food?" In Israel, Rozen says, asylum seekers may be turned down for work permits, but a majority finds work, because "officials turn a blind eye." Khamise says there was another reason for his journey. He decided to head for Israel after learning about the Holocaust. "The story of the Jewish people is similar to ours in Darfur, where we are being persecuted as Muslims. That's why I thought Israel would protect us."