Rights groups such as Amnesty International have called on the Egyptian authorities to "urgently rein in their border security forces" after seven African asylum-seekers were killed in September trying to cross into Israel on foot, but some Israeli NGOs and soldiers say the death toll at the border is far higher.
''I strongly believe there are hundreds of unreported dead and wounded [at the border]," Sigal Rosen, public activities coordinator at the NGO Moked, a hotline for migrants, told IRIN.
"We've interviewed hundreds of asylum-seekers and nearly all told us that some people in their group were shot and left behind while attempting to cross the border. Furthermore, we have evidence from IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] soldiers revealing that the death toll on the Egyptian side is much higher than reported. The graveyard for asylum-seekers shot on the [Israeli side] of the border in Kibbutz Hatzor already holds 25 graves [since mid-2007]. Many of the asylum-seekers tell us that [other] bodies are left in the desert.''
The Sons of Darfur, an NGO assisting asylum-seekers in Israel, concurred that many more were being killed than reports suggested. ''We expect Israel to pressure the Egyptians to stop shooting at asylum-seekers at the border,'' said the NGO's director, Yassin (his only name).
An IDF reserve soldier speaking on condition of anonymity told IRIN: ''We hear that [shooting] every night, and nearly every morning we are informed that the Egyptians shot more asylum-seekers to death - it is common practice.''
Incidents in September
The most recent reported incident at the Egypt-Israel border was on 20 September when a Sudanese asylum-seeker was shot dead, according to the Egyptian police.
This incident followed one on 16 September when two Eritrean asylum-seekers were shot dead, and at the start of the month when four African asylum-seekers were killed.
According to Amnesty International, their killings brought the number of Africans shot dead at the border to 14 so far in 2009, while 28 were killed in 2008
Scores more reach Israel wounded, according to NGOs, volunteers and leaders in the asylum-seeker community as well as hospital records and IDF soldiers.
IRIN met several asylum-seekers in Tel Aviv who said they had been shot at the border; they displayed wounds varying from bullet grazes to major gunshot injuries.
Photo: Shabtai Gold/IRIN
|The Egyptian-Israeli border fence. Near this point, African asylum seekers cross into Israel nearly every night|
Egypt defends use of lethal force
In response to Amnesty International's allegations, Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hossam Zaki issued a statement defending the use of lethal force by border guards, saying the "protection of the Egyptian borders stems from Egypt's respect for international law and international commitments".
He said asylum-seekers were only fired upon "after they ignore the warnings of the border guards" and said policing the border was difficult because of the "smuggling of weapons, drugs and goods".
"These individuals appeared to pose no threat to the lives of the border guards or anyone else. Attempted border crossings are not a capital offence," said Joe Stork, associate Middle East director at the New York-based pressure group Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
Some 24,000 asylum-seekers have illegally entered Israel through its southern border in the past five years, according to estimates by Israel's Ministry of Interior.
Estimates of the number of asylum-seekers in Israel today vary from 17,000, as registered by the UN Refugee Agency, to some 24,000, as claimed by the Israeli immigration authority.
According to sources in the IDF and immigration authority, asylum-seekers are crossing the Egypt-Israel border at a rate of 400-600 every month, despite the grave dangers.