Cablegate: Refugees Caught in Egypt-Israel Border Crossfire


DE RUEHEG #1852/01 2671513
P 241513Z SEP 09

S E C R E T CAIRO 001852



E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/24/2019

REF: A. CAIRO 1458 B. 08 CAIRO 2384 C. CAIRO 1377 D. JERUSALEM 1264 E. CAIRO 36 Classified By: Minister Counselor for Economic and Political Affairs Donald A. Blome for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).
1.(C) Key Points: -- Egypt's border with Israel is under pressure from Bedouin traffickers moving illegal goods, drugs, arms, and people, including African migrants who pay USD 500-1000 to be taken to the Israel border. -- According to local press, shootings at the border in the last four months have resulted in the deaths of 13 African migrants, 3 Bedouin smugglers and 2 border police officers. -- Bedouin from economically-depressed central Sinai smuggle goods, drugs and people into Israel to support their families. African migrants are often unable to find work in Egypt and are transiting to Israel in search of economic opportunities.

2.(C) Comment: Per the Camp David Accords, military border guards are not allowed on the Israel border. Border guards are allowed on the Gaza border and operate in central Sinai, at a significant distance from the Israel border area. Ministry of Interior border police officers man the 266 kilometer (141 mile) Egypt-Israel border area. During recent trips to Sinai we have noticed increasing tensions between Egyptian border guards and the Bedouin in central Sinai, probably as a result of Egyptian efforts to curb smuggling, which threaten the livelihoods of many Bedouin (reftel A). We have not been allowed to travel to the "sensitive" Israel border region. We have encouraged African refugee leaders in Cairo to dissuade migrants from trying to cross the Israel border because the area appears to be increasingly dangerous. However, as economic pressures increase on the Bedouin and African migrants, we expect to see more lethal encounters with Egyptian border police on the Egypt-Israel border. --------------------------------------------- ----------- Smugglers, Migrants, and Refugees Converge on the Border --------------------------------------------- -----------

3.(S) Egypt's border with Israel serves as a crossing point for African migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees searching for a better life in Israel and the West. The same border area also serves as a key transit point in the flow of illegal goods, drugs, and humans being trafficked to Gaza and Israel. Hafez Abou Seada, Director of the Egyptian Organization (EOHR) for Human Rights, told us on September 16 that interviews with migrants and asylum seekers, captured at the border and now being held in Sinai prisons, revealed that the route for "traffickers" and "smugglers" was the same. The African prisoners told EOHR representatives that goods and people are sometimes moved together and other times separately. According to Abu Seada, interviews revealed four nodal points in the movement of migrants. Migrants began their journey in Cairo, traveled to Ismailia where they crossed the Suez Canal, were taken by Bedouin across central Sinai to Bir Hassana, and from there to the Israel border. Migrants and asylum seekers told EOHR that Bedouin traffickers killed some African migrants for failing to pay the full cost of transit.

4.(C) Former MFA Refugee Office Coordinator Tarek El Maaty claimed that the GoE in 2008 instituted a "shoot at the legs" policy against those that refuse to heed warnings to stop because of "increased Israeli and U.S. pressure on Egypt to control the border" (reftel B). We raised the migrant shootings issue on July 8 and again on September 16 with new MFA Refugee Office Coordinator Youssef Al Sharkawy. He told us that this border area was "extremely sensitive." Al Sharkawy said Egyptian forces were being shot and needed to protect themselves as well as the national security and sovereignty of Egypt. Al Sharkawy also said there was pressure to "prevent terrorists from crossing the border into Israel. (NFI)" While agreeing the shooting of migrants was "tragic," he hinted that because of security and sovereignty concerns it was not likely the policy would be "put on hold" as had been the case from January to April 2009.

5.(SBU) Since late April, the number of border incidents appears to have increased. According to local press reports there have been at least eight instances where gunfire was exchanged between Bedouin traffickers and Egyptian border guards, resulting in the deaths of two border guards and three Bedouin smugglers and tens of injured on both sides. During the same period, local press reported more than 150 African migrants arrested trying to cross the border, more than 30 migrants injured by shots fired by Egyptian border guards, and 13 killed. ---------------------------------- Bedouin Trying to Support Families ----------------------------------

5.(C) Relations between the Sinai Bedouin and the Government of Egypt (GoE) are historically tense. The Bedouin in central Sinai have few economic opportunities to dissuade them from smuggling drugs, food, weapons, and humans across borders into Israel and Gaza to support their families. Clan and family ties on both sides of the Egypt-Israel and Egypt-Gaza borders help facilitate the smuggling business. Recent Egyptian counter-tunneling measures in the Gaza border area appear to have reduced the flow of goods into Gaza and the incomes Sinai Bedouin gain from it (reftel C-D). This may have increased overland traffic and tensions between Bedouin clans and Egyptian border guards along the Israel border. ------------------------------------------ Africans Looking for Opportunity in Israel ------------------------------------------

6.(C) UNHCR statistics show Egypt is home to approximately 35,000 registered refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, but Post is aware that many more live in Cairo as unregistered economic migrants or asylum seekers. Most Africans, especially males, find it nearly impossible to obtain formal work in Egypt. The general economic slowdown due to global financial crisis has increased pressure on the informal labor market, making Israel a more attractive option for the Africans, according to our contacts in Cairo's refugee community. The Africans, lacking economic opportunity and hope for resettlement, pay smugglers between USD 500-1,000 to help them transit the Sinai Peninsula and reach Israel, according to our contacts in the Eritrean refugee community. (reftel E) Scobey

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