JERUSALEM — Israel is refusing to allow entry to a small group of African migrants huddled at a desert border fence with Egypt, officials said Wednesday, underscoring a toughened entry policy.
The Eritrean group appeared to number a dozen, including two women and a teenager, according to activists and an AP photographer who was at the site Tuesday.
They were crowded beside Israel's new border fence, shaded by blue-striped plastic they hoisted above themselves.
The group had been there for about a week, said Ran Cohen of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which helps migrants.
Israel's military has since sealed off the area. A spokesman said soldiers were giving the group water and food.
Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai said they will not be allowed in, because that would encourage more African migrants to make the trip.
"If there were no fence there, and we were not determined (to stop the influx of migrants), then that number would become 1 million people," he said.
Israel has almost completed a barrier along 200 kilometers (125 miles) of its border with Egypt to block African migrants and militants from the lawless Sinai.
Officials have also expanded the capacity of detention centers to ensure those entering are immediately held, said Cohen of the rights group.
Most of the Africans are from Sudan and Eritrea. Under international law, Israel cannot return people to those two countries because of their poor human rights records. Many have settled in Tel Aviv, changing the face of its southern neighborhoods.
The tough measures came after Israeli officials spent years grappling with how to halt the flow of Africans who began entering after Egyptian police killed 20 Sudanese asylum seekers during a demonstration in Cairo in 2005. Their numbers swelled as news of safety and jobs in Israel spread.
Many Israelis fear the continued flow of non-Jewish Africans is eroding the country's Jewish character.
One-fifth of the Israel's citizens are Arabs, there are tens of thousands migrant workers overstaying visas, and about 70,000 Africans.
Other Israelis say their country should not send back those fleeing persecution.
"People are running away from killings and a dictatorship. We are obligated to help them," said Maayan Zak. She and other activists tried to reach the area this week to deliver food.
In a previous standoff with four Eritreans who refused to leave the fence last month, the migrants were allowed in after four days.
An Israeli official said that no "international body" determined that Sudanese or Eritreans would be persecuted in Egypt. He said Israel had "no legal obligation" to let them in. He spoke on condition n of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
In an email response, he did not relate to widely documented claims that Sinai smugglers frequently torture, rape and sometimes enslave Africans in their territory.
U.N. official William Tall said Israel should allow the group in and then review their claims to see if they are genuine refugees.
"These people are expressing a fear to be returned," Tall said. "They (Israel) can't deny them access to (its) territory."
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