On the Egypt-Israel Border, a Modern Exodus


Let My People Stay’: Sudanese protesters held signs outside the Israeli prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem in 2007 demanding that individuals fleeing Darfur be allowed to stay in Israel.
Getty Images
Let My People Stay’: Sudanese protesters held signs outside the Israeli prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem in 2007 demanding that individuals fleeing Darfur be allowed to stay in Israel.

By Kathleen Peratis

Published April 14, 2010, issue of April 23, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Last month, as Jews around the world prepared for Passover, Egyptian border guards were killing migrants trying to cross into Israel. How many of us, as we sat at our Seder tables, were even aware of the dramatic parallel to the Passover story taking place on the present-day Egyptian-Israeli border?

Most of those trying to cross from Egypt into Israel are from Eritrea and the Darfur region of Sudan. The hardships faced by many in Darfur and in Eritrea are as horrific as slavery, or even worse. Ethnic and political violence in Darfur has resulted in the deaths of, by some estimates, 200,000 people and displaced several million others. In Eritrea, the government brutally represses dissent and imposes mandatory, indefinite military service that a recent Human Rights Watch report succinctly summarized with the title “Service for Life.” The spirit of Pharaoh lives on.

Just as the fleeing Israelites were chased by Pharaoh’s army, Eritreans and Darfuris who are today trying to escape the situations that enslave them are sometimes violently pursued. On March 29, Egyptian border guards shot dead an Eritrean migrant and wounded two others as they tried to cross from the Sinai into Israel. Egyptian security sources told Reuters that Egyptian police had shot dead two African migrants, wounded five others and arrested three more at the same border two days earlier. In response to criticism over the fatal shootings, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that “the number of deaths in these incidents did not exceed 2% in 2008 and 4% in 2009 of the total number of migrants attempting to cross.” Since when is shooting and killing four out of every 100 people seeking freedom considered acceptable?

Those arrested trying to cross the border are at risk of being returned to places such as Eritrea or Sudan, where they face torture or other forms of persecution. In December 2008 and January 2009, Egypt forcibly returned more than 45 Eritrean asylum seekers to Eritrea, where they faced detention and the risk of torture. The Egyptian authorities did so without first assessing the Eritreans’ protection needs or providing them with the opportunity to make asylum claims.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel earlier this year proclaimed his plan to build a fence along the Egyptian border to keep out “infiltrators,” many of whom are asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. While Israel has legitimate security concerns regarding stopping infiltrators seeking to do it harm, Haaretz quoted Netanyahu expressing the much broader concern that “the infiltrators cause cultural, social and economic damage and drag us into the Third World.”

In addition, a government-sponsored bill that has already had its first reading in the Knesset would affirm the so-called “hot returns” policy of detaining and quickly expelling to Egypt asylum seekers who succeed in crossing the border. Israel forcibly returned 217 people to Egypt between January and August of last year alone, according to an official court filing.

Borders, by definition, have two sides. And human rights obligations adhere on both. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the principle that everyone has the right “to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,” and the Refugee Convention’s prohibition on forced refugee returns “in any manner whatsoever” is interpreted to bar expulsions at borders that would result in refugees being returned to places where their lives or freedom would either directly or indirectly be threatened.

Of course, Sudan and Eritrea bear ultimate responsibility for persecuting their citizens. But Egypt must also be held accountable for violating minimal human rights standards when its border forces shoot migrants or when it forcibly returns refugees to countries where they face persecution. And Israel should be held to account when it fails to meet its responsibilities by prohibiting entry at its border to people fleeing persecution. To engage in “hot returns” that fail to examine the pleas of such asylum seekers is not only to forget what it was like to be slaves in Egypt, but also what it might have been like to be trudging through the Sea of Reeds, anxious and fearful that the escape might fail and all would be lost.

Kathleen Peratis, a partner at the New York law firm Outten & Golden, is a board member emerita of Human Rights Watch.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • What do a Southern staple like okra and an Israeli favorite like tahini have in common? New Orleans chef Alon Shaya brings sabra tastes to the Big Easy.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.