Egypt's border with Israel in the Sinai desert has in the past few years been transformed from a remote outpost to a major thoroughfare for human traffickers and desperate refugees.
|An Egyptian armoured vehicle monitors the border with Israel [Stack]
It is a route that Sadiq Sahour, a Sudanese refugee, and his family know all too well.
Sahour and his wife, Hajja Abbas Haroun, fled Sudan's troubled Darfur region in 2004 after a government militia burned their village and killed several family members.
They came to Egypt in search of a more secure life for themselves and their infant daughter, but once in Cairo they discovered they could not find work and were offered little assistance from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
In 2007, they paid a smuggler $250 per person to help them traverse a dangerous route across the border to Israel.
They traveled to the Sinai town of El-Arish and paid an Egyptian gang to take them, plus several other adults and children, to the border in a rickety microbus.
Death at the border
The smugglers dropped them off far from the border, and Sahour and Haroun, who was seven months pregnant, walked through the night to get there.
|Sadiq Sahour's wife was shot dead
When they arrived at the border crossing, however, their hopes for a new life in Israel were dashed by what a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report calls Egypt's policy of "shoot-to-stop."
"The police shot at us before we could even reach the border. They came and shot us from close up," he says.
His wife was shot in the side of the head and died instantly.
"She died right there," he told Al Jazeera. "She was the only one to die."
Since Haroun's death in July 2007, human rights groups have accused Egyptian border police of killing 33 other refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers; the youngest known victim was just seven-years-old.
Joe Stork, the HRW assistant director for the Middle East and North Africa, says the frequency of shooting fatalities may indicate a deliberate measure by Egyptian border police to deter people from illegally crossing the border.
"One might find it plausible to say that a single shooting is a tragic mistake, but when it happens 33 times you have to say 'wait a minute, this appears to be a policy,'" he said.
"This is a violation of the right to life and a violation of international police standards, which say you only use lethal force when you need to protect lives."
National security risk
The Egyptian government says that human trafficking poses a national security risk that has become especially acute in the Sinai Peninsula, which is the centre of the country's lucrative beach tourism industry.
It is also one of the country's most restive places. Since the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords with Israel, it has been home to a contingent of multinational peacekeepers, and it is sporadically rocked by clashes between local Bedouin and Egyptian security forces.
Violence flared in mid-November when several Bedouins were killed by Egyptian police. In retaliation, Bedouin groups have injured a number of policemen and raided police stations, briefly kidnapping 25 officers and stealing dozens of weapons and ammunition.
"You have to understand the nature of these borders," says Ambassador Hossam Zaki, a spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry.
"These borders are watched as heavily as we can commensurate with the manpower we have on the ground, which is really not enough to do all they have to do."
Yasser Ahmed Ali, the lieutenant-commander of the Liaison Agency with International Organisations, a branch of the Egyptian military that works with multinational forces in the area, denied that his country has a deliberate policy of shooting refugees.
"We do not shoot migrants," he said. "We shoot infiltrators."
|Barbed wire separates Egypt and Israel in the Sinai desert
The UNHCR says that Egypt is home to 90,000 refugees, of which 70,000 are Palestinian and 20,000 are from Sudan and Somalia.
But Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance, a UK-based group, says unofficial estimates suggest the total number is closer to 300,000.
Since 2005, UNHCR estimates that more than 7,400 migrants have crossed the border into Israel, with the majority of those making the trip within the last 10 months.
HRW puts that number higher. They say that more than 13,000 migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers have made the dangerous journey since 2006.
Most of those are from Sudan and Eritrea, an increasingly volatile country on the Red Sea coast of Africa, where large numbers of people flee mandatory military service or religious persecution aimed at a Pentecostal Christian minority.
The increasing number of African migrants has caused a stir in Israel, and political leaders have responded with alarm. In March, Ehud Olmert, then-prime minister called them "a tsunami that can grow and we need to take every measure in order to stop it," according to Israeli daily Ha'aretz.
Rights groups say that in June Israel began to pressure Egypt to accept the return of African migrants and to more heavily police the border.
After meeting with Egyptian officials in Sharm el Sheikh, Olmert announced that Egypt had agreed to the request and had pledged to treat returned migrants humanely.
Cairo denied that it had agreed to accept the returnees, but police soon began cracking down on the border. Within days of Olmert's remarks, the first migrant was injured by gunfire on the border and, less than a month later, Haroun was killed.
Bill Van Esveld, the author of the HRW report on African refugees crossing into Israel, said: "The timeline of events seemed to indicate that Egypt has responded to Israeli pressure with this policy, which has led to a lot of deaths."
"It is not justified under international human rights law and the international community should step up and say so."
Returned to Egypt
Since June, Israel has returned 139 people to Egypt, says Van Esveld.
He says it is illegal to deport asylum-seekers before they have been able to file an asylum claim, or if their safety cannot be guaranteed in the receiving country.
HRW says that not only has Egypt not been able to protect the returnees, but none of them have been heard from since their return.
"Israel must stop returning people to Egypt. Whether Egypt is a safe country for refugees or not, it is not safe for people who are returned from Israel," he says.
Experts say many refugees and migrants consider sneaking into Israel, or going to Europe, because of the difficulties of life in Cairo.
Michael Kagan, a senior fellow in human rights law at the American University in Cairo, is critical of how the Egyptian government and UNHCR address the refugee issue.
Under Egyptian law, migrants are not able to fully integrate into Egyptian society, because they are not allowed to work or send their children to public school, he says.
|The UNHCR operates a camp for repatriated Sudanese in south Sudan [AFP]
Despite provisions of international law that allow resettlement in such conditions, the UNHCR in Egypt has decided not to relocate those under its care.
Since 2004, the number of refugees resettled abroad has plunged from over 4,000 to less than 500, which Abeer Etefa, the UNHCR spokesperson in the Middle East, says is due to the 2004 peace agreement between North and South Sudan.
"Now that the international community sees greater prospects for peace in South Sudan, resettlement countries are taking fewer and fewer Sudanese refugees," she told Al Jazeera.
The UNHCR hopes to resettle 800 people from Egypt by January 2009, she said.
However, Kagan says those policies are at the root of the smuggling problem.
"There has been a policy in Egypt by the UNHCR for the last several years that contributes to the despair which is one cause of this migration, and that policy has been a turning away from third country resettlement despite Egyptian policies that hinder full integration and the fact that many asylum seekers cannot repatriate," he says.
"Many refugees say this is at the core of why they feel there is no hope here."
Egypt has also started to deport some of its migrants and refugees to their countries of origin, in violation of international law.
Between April and July, Egyptian authorities deported 49 Sudanese to Sudan and sent more than 1,200 Eritreans back home.
Many of those were barred from presenting claims to the UNHCR, a violation of their rights under international law, Kagan said.
Many migrants are afraid to return to their home countries and are very nervous about Egypt's high-profile deportations. With work and school restricted in Egypt and little chance of resettlement, rights activists say refugees are becoming desperate enough to risk their welfare to travel to Israel.
Kagan agrees that Egypt's use of force on the border appears to be in response to international pressure, but says that international pressure may be the best way to stop it.
"Egypt may think that using violence to control the border is an appropriate response to international pressure," he says.
"Egypt must understand that shooting pregnant women and seven-year-old girls is not what the international community wants."
But Ambassador Zaki, the foreign ministry spokesman, says that refugees and migrants have obligations under international law, too. He says they should respect and follow Egyptian laws, which forbid entering sensitive military zones or sneaking across international borders.
He says that charges that Egypt is intentionally killing migrants are "completely overblown," but says that in the course of defending the border soldiers do fire warning shots. Sometimes, greater force is necessary to secure the border.
"Usually, and as matter of standard these individuals who try to cross the border illegally are warned against such action and warned that it might expose them to later fire," Zaki said.
"We warn them against taking these actions, but this is the situation that we are in."