Israel has been sending soldiers into Egypt\’s Sinai desert to stop African migrants before they reach the border, handing them over to Egyptian forces, human rights groups charged in a report released Friday.
The groups said this is an attempt to circumvent international law that forbids nations from repatriating asylum seekers if they might be in danger in their home countries. Israel says most of the migrants are seeking work, not asylum.
The groups called on Israel to stop the practice.
The Jewish state has been increasingly concerned over the numbers of African migrants sneaking across the porous border. Most come from Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea. About 60,000 migrants are already in Israel, and some Israelis have expressed concern that the influx could harm the Jewish character of their state.
A senior Egyptian military official in Sinai denied that any Israeli soldiers entered Egypt to chase migrants. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
In a response sent to Ynet, the IDF said that its units are operating in a region where the border fence is yet to be completed with the purpose of preventing terrorist and smuggling activity, as well as illegal infiltration of the border.
"Over the past few weeks, IDF forces have had to block several infiltrators\’ attempts to cross into the State of Israel illegally," the IDF Spokesperson said, adding that the migrants were detained until Egyptian forces arrived at the border to collect them.
"The IDF is operating within the framework of the law," it said.
Soldier\’s account included
The report, which was penned by Amnesty International and several Israeli groups, including Hotline for Migrant Workers and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, cited several migrants whose relatives were seized by Israeli soldiers inside Egyptian territory.
It also included a signed statement from an Israeli soldier who relates how his unit set up a patrol a few hundred meters (yards) inside Egypt to stop migrants.
The three rights group called on Israel to stop the practice, saying it was aimed at preventing migrants from entering Israel, where the government would then have to consider their claims of asylum. The groups said repatriating asylum seekers who might be in danger in their home countries is a violation of international law.
"Israel is responsible for the action or omissions of its soldiers, whether they are located in Israeli or Egyptian territory," the report said. It added that they fear that "victims of physical and sexual abuse by traffickers in the Sinai desert may be among those returned."
Israel has begun deporting migrants from South Sudan, giving financial incentives to those who agree to leave voluntarily. South Sudan, which gained independence a year ago, has friendly relations with Israel.
The rights groups\’ report coincides with a sharp drop in the number of migrants crossing the border. In July, Israel said 248 migrants entered, less than half the average. The report quotes Egyptian newspapers saying that 514 migrants were caught in July, several hundred more than usual.