The Plight of Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Egypt

Via Monsters and Critics, Egyptian police apparently opened fire on a gang of human traffickers helping Eritrean and Sudanese refugees escape to Israel through the Sinai Peninsula. What’s the significance? In recent months there has been a marked up-tick in the number of Eritreans entering Egypt illegally and seeking asylum. Egypt, in turn, has come under criticism from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees for forcibly repatriating Eritreans, despite their asylum claims. Meanwhile, UNHCR is trying to interview Eritrean asylum seekers to assess their claims for refugee status, but so far UNHCR officials have not be given access to all detention facilities housing Eritreans.

With Egypt being such hostile territory for Eritrean asylum seekers, a growing number have sought refuge in Israel. Writing in Ha’aretz Nurit Wuhrgaft tells the story of one intrepid young asylum seeker who made it all the way from Eritrea to Be’er Sheva in southern Israel.

It took him eight months to reach Sudan. He found his way there with the help of strangers and crossed the border without a problem. “I knew I was in another country only when I reached a village and heard the people there speaking Arabic,” he says. In Sudan, he was taken in by fellow countrymen who fled Eritrea years before and settled there. During his month-long stay in Sudan, he contacted relatives who had fled years ago to Malta, and they sent him a little money for food. He used the money to pay a truck driver to take him to the capital city of Khartoum and to buy a train ticket to Cairo. In Cairo, he met some of his countrymen who warned him that he might be arrested there and even expelled back home. They suggested he join them on a trek to Israel, where, they promised, his life would be safer. P. agreed even though he had no idea where he was going. The difficult journey, traveled partially by foot, took only three days. When they crossed the border, they were detained by soldiers who took them to Be’er Sheva. “They were nice to us,” he says of the soldiers, fired only in the air, were polite to us, took us in their car to Be’er Sheva and there they dropped us off and left.” P. and his friends wandered around the city and asked how to get to the United Nations offices. A student put them in touch with Yohannes L. Bayu, director of the African Refugees Development Center. “I saw people after many hours of walking, exhausted, hungry and despairing,” says Bayu. He mobilized the small community of Eritreans in Israel to help them find a temporary place to live, organize a collection campaign and raise money. They also gave the newcomers sheets and blankets, which were used to create makeshift beds.