The number of migrants crossing the border between Egypt and Israel dropped to zero last week for the first time since 2006, as construction of the last small sections of a 240km fence is due to be completed in the coming weeks.
A total of 36 migrants crossed into Israel from Egypt last month, all of whom were detained, compared with 2,295 in January last year. The numbers have steadily declined throughout last year as construction of the vast steel fence through the desert from Eilat to the border with Gaza has progressed.
“We have succeeded in blocking the phenomenon of illegal infiltrators,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “It has been several months now that no infiltrator has reached [the Israeli cities of] Eilat, Beersheba, Tel Aviv or any Israeli community.”
Israel was repatriating migrants to their countries of origin, he said.
“For several months now hundreds of infiltrators have been leaving here ... and thousands will soon do so every month until the tens of thousands of people who are here illegally return to their countries of origin,” he said.
More than 9,000 migrants were deported last year, including almost 4,000 from African countries. Critics of the deportation policy say many migrants face extreme danger in their home countries.
“There is no doubt the fence is working as a deterrent,” said Sigal Rosen, of the Hotline for Migrant Workers.
However, Israel’s policy of preventing refugees crossing the fence, which is constructed on Israeli territory, was illegal under international law, she added.
“If a person is asking for asylum, a country has a duty to check their request,” she said.
The fence along Israel’s southern border is estimated to have cost around 1.4 billion shekels (US$374.8 million). Israel now has physical barriers along all its land borders apart from one section abutting Jordan, from Eilat to the Dead Sea. Plans to erect a fence along that border are under discussion.
Israel accelerated construction of the southern border fence after an attack by militants in August 2011 in which eight Israelis were killed, with the aim of completing it by the end of last year. The remaining gaps, which total about 9km, are on mountainous terrain near the Red Sea resort of Eilat.
The purpose of the fence is to deter illegal immigration, cross-border militant activity and the smuggling of drugs and weapons. More than 65,000 migrants, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, have entered Israel illegally from Egypt since 2006, according to government figures. A US Department of Sate report on human rights said Israel approved one out of 4,603 applications for asylum in 2011.
An Eritrean man appeared in court in Tel Aviv on Monday, accused of raping an 83-year-old woman on Dec. 21.
“The shocking rape is a symptom of a loss of sense of security among Israeli citizens in areas where there are high concentrations of infiltrators,” Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai said.
Last year, Yishai suggested migrants were committing rapes and were “AIDS carriers.”