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Eritrean refugees caught between Egypt and Israel

In early January, Egypt starting deporting Eritrean refugees  — somewhere between 45 and 65 are thought to have been sent home. These refugees tried to enter Isreal through the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. And the deportations say much less about the refugees themselves than the perilous but staunch relationship between Israel and Egypt. In short, ...

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In early January, Egypt starting deporting Eritrean refugees  — somewhere between 45 and 65 are thought to have been sent home. These refugees tried to enter Isreal through the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. And the deportations say much less about the refugees themselves than the perilous but staunch relationship between Israel and Egypt.

In short, Israel has turned up the pressure on Egypt in recent months to secure that country’s side of the Sinai peninsula border — a hot spot for trafficking of humans (like the Eritreans), goods, and weapons into the Gaza strip).

In June of last year, just as a 6-month ceasefire with Gaza went into effect, 1,200 more Eritrean refugees were detained and later deported. Recently, during the Gaza crisis, Human Rights Watch researcher Leslie Lefkow says she believes Egypt has sent between four and six flights of refugees back to Eritrea.

From the looks of it, pressure to clamp down on migrants is both formal and implicit. Israel imposed a strict policy to limit non-Jewish immigrants in 2007, facing what it feared was a tsunami of Africans seeking work or amnesty. In April 2007, Israeli and Egyptian authorities reportedly agreed on a policy of ‘hot returns’ — wherein all illegal border-crossers caught in Israel would be handed over to the Egyptians within 48 hours. The plan faced resistance from refugee advocates, but it’s not clear that the process ever stopped.

Now, with Gaza smuggling at an all time high, Egypt is in the hot seat to get all border crossings under control. The change in Egypt’s actions on the border — at least on refugee policing — is apparent. “Egypt has always been respectful of refugee law, but this is a different scenario,” Abeer Etefa of the UN High Commission for Refugees in Egypt told me. 

Sinai has always separated Egypt and Israel — in geography and politics alike. This time, it’s refugees caught in the middle.

Photo:  JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

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