Illegal African migrants present quandary for Israel

Image caption,
Migrants have come from Sudan, Eritrea and other troubled African nations

In recent years, thousands of African migrants have crossed illegally into Israel along its border with Egypt, which stretches for 250km (155 miles). The Israeli government has now started building a huge barrier, costing more than $370m (£230m) to try to stem the flow. The BBC's Wyre Davies reports from the border.

We came across them by the roadside, no more than a couple of kilometres inside Israeli territory.

Sixty-five people, including five children, who had just made the perilous journey across the Sinai desert and Israel's southern border with Egypt.

The Sinai is tens of thousands of square kilometres of nothing but sand and emptiness - it must be one of the most inhospitable places on earth.

But such obstacles had not stopped the desperate people I spoke to. They had risked everything - leaving behind homes and families in Sudan, Eritrea and other troubled African nations.

Perilous journey

Image caption,
The Sinai desert is one of the most inhospitable places on earth

Even though they had been caught by an Israeli border patrol and were not really sure what to expect next, they said they now felt relatively safe.

That's because many migrants are fleeing persecution and poverty in their own countries, and even travelling across Egypt and the Sinai is fraught with danger.

Human rights groups accuse Egyptian border guards of shooting indiscriminately at them. Although officials insist they only fire at those who ignore repeated orders to stop, since July 2007, at least 85 people have been shot and killed trying to cross into Israel.

Many are also abused by the networks of trafficking gangs, who charge huge fees to transport them across the desert.

Abdum, who said he had made the long journey from Eritrea, knew that after he was "processed" the Israelis would probably allow him to remain, albeit temporarily, and he might even be able to find work.

"We came to Israel just to protect ourselves, to claim asylum," he said as he and his fellow travellers waited patiently under an awning outside an Israeli military base. "Coming here is a dream for me. I love Israel and I want to stay here."

While some migrants say they are political refugees, many, like the dozens of men we later came across in the town of Eilat, are clearly looking for employment.

It is thought that as many as 700 African migrants are crossing into Israel from Egypt every week.

Unprotected border

Long tracks across the desert indicate the well-worn routes taken by thousands of migrants across what is, in many areas, a completely unprotected border.

Image caption,
Migrants are filling low-paid jobs in Israel

Earlier this year, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to build a barrier. Work finally started last month.

However, many in the local tourism sector say that is the wrong approach.

They need cheap foreign labour and say more, albeit legal, migration should be encouraged.

Increasingly, low-paid jobs that used to be done by Palestinian workers - who are now unable to enter Israel - are being filled by African migrants.

They wait tables, clean rooms and keep the beachfront clean.

"In the hotel industry in Eilat we need about 1,500 employees in those jobs. There are no Israelis who want to do the jobs even though we offer them wonderful conditions," says David Bloom, a senior manager for the Isrotel chain in Eilat.

Even when the wall is completed, it will not extend to less accessible areas along the length of the border.

Despite the many dangers along the route, desperate migrants are unlikely to be deterred by Israel's latest attempt to keep them out.

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