Obsessing Over Israel, NPR Glosses Over Plight of African Migrants

Refugees and economic migrants fleeing Eritrea, the Sudan and elsewhere in Africa make their way to the Middle East, and though they leave home in search of safety or opportunity, their new countries, including Libya, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, bring new challenges.
Conditions vary from country to country. And while there is certainly a story to tell about challenges faced by asylum seekers in Israel, and it is legitimate for news organizations — especially Israeli and Jewish media outlets, which are innately affiliated with the country — to take note, the story that screams for serious attention is the inhumane treatment of migrants at the hands of Egyptians.

In Israel, some refugees and migrant workers have complained of feeling unwelcome. With tens of thousands of Africans sneaking into the country in recent years, concerns are increasingly being voiced about the country’s ability to absorb them, and emotional debate has erupted about how to handle the situation. Israel has occasionally turned away groups of migrants who cross the border from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, and recently facilitated the repatriation of 150 Sudanese who chose to return home. It is in the process of building a controversial detention center to house those who continue to stream across the border.

Some of these asylum seekers fled to Israel after conditions in Egypt, where they had initially settled, became increasingly inhospitable. Thousands of others merely pass through Egypt, availing themselves of the sole land route from sub-Saharan Africa to Israel. And nearly 100,000 recognized refugees and many more economic immigrants continue to reside in Egypt. For migrants passing through or seeking asylum in that country, the situation can be dire. Dozens have been shot dead by security personnel in recent years, not including the nearly thirty Sudanese killed when police brutally raided a migrant protest camp in late 2005. Hundreds or thousands have been deported from the country. And scores have been kept in horrifying conditions by Egyptian human traffickers in the Sinai — held hostage, beaten, tortured, enslaved, gang raped and reportedly murdered. If and when they are finally released, they risk being arrested or shot by Egyptian border guards. (Several of their stories are relayed in the sidebars accompanying this article. Note that some of this sidebar material may be disturbing.)
Israel’s “Welcome Mat”

“Earlier this week, according to [EveryOne Group co-president Matteo] Pegoraro, two of the captives were shot to death in front of the other hostages. The traffickers had apparently accused the two men–both protestant deacons–of having notified international institutions and the media about their plight.

“The humanitarian situation faced by the migrants continues to deteriorate, meanwhile, with women and children reportedly being raped. They are also reportedly being denied food and water, and are thus forced to drink their own urine to survive.”

– Tobias Zick, Al-Masry Al-Youm, 12/19/10

And yet for NPR, criticism of Israel is apparently the more appealing beat.
In December 2010, the United Nations refugee office, the European Union, the Pope and NGOs across the world were drawing attention to the plight of hundreds of Eritreans held hostage and severely abused in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula; six migrants were reportedly shot or beaten to death by traffickers in Egypt;  another 30 asylum seekers died along the Yemen-Saudi border; and NPR’s Morning Edition chose to broadcast a story focusing on the migrants in Israel.

Entitled “In Israel, No Welcome Mat For African Migrants,” the Dec. 30 piece focuses almost entirely on criticism of Israeli policy. The broadcast opens with a reference to the migrants’ long and costly trek before reporter Sheera Frankel coolly introduces the antagonist: “Israel, however, is far from laying down the welcoming mat.”

From here, the story turns to accusations that Israel violates a UN convention on the status of refugees. Next listeners hear from a Congolese migrant who says he does not feel welcome in Israel. Then an Israeli government minister is heard undiplomatically expressing his belief that the migrants are an existential threat and suggesting they should be kicked out.
The program closes by raising questions about whether 150 recently repatriated Sudanese actually left voluntarily:
NPR’s Sheera Frenkel: The last step [of an Israeli politician’s plan] is the repatriation of refugees who are already in Israel. A step Israel took – for the first time – earlier this month when it removed 150 South Sudanese who agreed to leave voluntarily in exchange for some pocket money and a flight home in time to v ote in the upcoming referendum on the region’s independence.

Olivier, however, questions just how voluntary their removal was.

Congolese migrant Oscar Olivier: They’ve been pushed into corner. They’ve been put in the situation where that one was the only solution to them.

“On a bed in his tiny shared apartment in Tel Aviv, Mekonen Kefete bares his right leg to illustrate the story of his journey to Israel. It is dotted with dark black marks where red-hot iron bars were cruelly poked into his skin. …
“He recalled a daily routine that consisted of a wake-up call followed by beatings around the face with shoes and on the legs with a wooden pole. The prisoners then were shackled together to work as a chain gang.”

– Nathan Jeffay, The Forward, 12/29/10

It is not clear why NPR chose Olivier to be its authoritative source on the Sudanese repatriation while neglecting to expose listeners to officials familiar with the case, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Israel who has made clear the “removal” was indeed voluntary. A Dec. 14 Associated Press story about the 150 migrants notes:

The Sudanese left willingly, according to officials.

“We are aware that people expressed interest to go back,” said William Tall, an official from the UN refugee agency. “I can confirm that no coercion was involved in their going back.”

Perhaps the network opted for Olivier’s message over that of the UN official because, however uninformed, it dovetails better with what reporters and editors have internalized as “the story” in the Middle East: Bad news from Israel.
Indeed, the tone of the NPR piece leaves no doubt that the one malefactor is Israel. Egypt, which played such a brutal role in so many of the migrants’ lives, and where over 30 migrants were shot dead in 2010, is not an actor in the story at all. Indeed, at no time in 2010 did NPR’s popular news programs draw attention to the plight of African migrants in Egypt, though dozens were killed and scores were kidnapped and abused.
Killings in Egypt

“‘I was beaten, electrocuted, tied up and thrown outside at night. We ate once in three days. There was one woman — the traffickers raped her,’ Germai Omar, a 30-year-old Eritrean farmer, told Reuters in Tel Aviv.”

– Maayan Lubell, Reuters, 1/13/11
The network did broadcast a story in December 2009 entitled “Egyptian Forces Accused of Shooting Asylum Seekers.” But this Morning Edition segment reveals more about NPR’s Middle East reporting than about the plight of the migrants. Although its title would suggest the piece is wholly about Egypt’s behavior, just as the December 2010 broadcast was exclusively about migrants in the Jewish state, here again Israel is featured prominently as an antagonist, and Egyptian responsibility for African suffering is, to a notable degree, minimized.
The piece’s introduction, by host Ari Shapiro, immediately redirects attention from Egypt to the usual suspect:
African asylum seekers have been crossing the Egyptian desert into Israel. It’s a dangerous journey. Many say the Egyptian security forces have shot at them as they attempted to cross the border. Still some 18,000 people have made this trip over the past four years, and now Israel wants to stop them, both through legislation and by asking to tighten controls on the shared border.
And the report that follows, narrated by Sheera Frenkel, opens and closes with critical discussion of Israel.
Frenkel begins,

Just minutes away from Tel Aviv’s Central bus station, the journey of these African refugees has come to a dead end. Thousands of miles from their home countries they are unable to apply for residency or asylum here. They inhabit a virtual no man’s land in Israel.

“M., a woman from Eritr ea, arrived in Israel in January 2010 and currently resides in Tel Aviv-Yaffo. She is divorced and has two children, aged 4 and 7, who are living in Eritrea. She was repeatedly raped in the Sinai Desert for five months at gun point, and became pregnant.”

Testimony, Physicians for Human Rights–Israel, 10/7/10
And she concludes:
The Israeli parliament is currently debating legislation aimed at stopping non-Jewish refugees. The draft bill would allow immediate expulsion or imprisonment of a person entering Israel without a permit. Its sponsors argue that the majority of the people arriving in Israel are economic migrants not refugees, and that Israel’s limited resources and geography can not accommodate them. But Byen thinks Israel is still the best option for people like her.

Ms. BYEN: (Through translator) We want the government to recognize us and to send us to another country or to give us papers so that we can work.

FRANKEL: As she speaks, Rosa walks into the room and hands her mother a map. She wants to know where America is.
In between the references to Israel, Frenkel does convey some of the troubles faced by migrants in Egypt. A Sudanese refugee is heard saying that “The Egyptians shot at us. They killed my son. This is what they think of us.” The broadcast points out that Israeli soldiers lifted the border fence so that the migrant could enter Israel and escape the Egyptian gunfire, and that at least 33 migrants had been shot.

“Egyptian activists are calling on the government to take action to save African asylum-seekers from what they call the ‘systematic torture’ they are being subjected to by their Bedouin captors in the Sinai peninsula who demand thousands of dollars in ransom.”

IRIN, 1/6/11

It is notable, though, that a piece about migrants in Egypt dwells on (negative aspects of) their experience in Israel, while a piece about migrants in Israel says not a single word about their deadly travails in Egypt.

Differing Treatment of Israel and Egypt
A look at “word clouds” of the two broadcasts is revealing. A word cloud is an illustration showing the relative frequency of words in text by rendering more common words in larger font. The first cloud below is from NPR’s story about migrants in Israel. The second is from its earlier story on Egypt. In both, “Israel” is the most frequently mentioned word.

Word cloud of “In Israel, No Welcome Mat for African Migrants”

Word cloud of “Egyptian Forces Accused of Shooting Asylum Seekers”
Along with this peculiar similarity, there are also glaring discrepancies between the broadcasts.

“They are hung from trees by metal chains attached to their arms and provided with plastic bags to collect their urine to drink when they are thirsty. They are gang raped, tortured with electricity and held prisoner in desert camps. When they escape they are shot, either by their Beduin captors or by Egyptian police. These savage and disturbing details, published piecemeal over the years, are just a part of the picture of what is being done in Egypt’s Sinai desert to African migrants.”

– Seth J. Franzman, The Jerusalem Post, 8/18/10
The broadcast about Israel implies racism is a factor in the treatment of migrants, with Congolese migrant Oscar Olivier telling listeners that the country is “not a place for people who are different. It’s a place where people should be, look, all the same.” In Morning Edition’s coverage of migrants in Egypt there is no such innuendo, though it would not have been very difficult for NPR’s reporters to discover that serious concerns have been raised about Egyptian  racism. Indeed, one prominent NGO cited “violent racism” as a reason why black migrants flee from Egypt to Israel.
Likewise, it appears that accusations of Israeli legal breaches interest NPR more than charges that Egypt breaks the law. As noted above, the 2010 piece relays the accusation that the Jewish state’s migrant policy violates international law:

Ms. SIGAL ROSEN (Organizer, Hotline for Migrant Workers): During the last years, Israel is sending a very clear message to all asylum seekers: Beware, we are not interested in your presence here. We will do whatever in our power to prevent you from being here, even if the price is violating our legal commitments.

FRENKEL: That’s Sigal Rosen, an organizer at the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an advocacy group for refugees. She says that though Israel signed the Geneva Convention relating to refugees, it regularly violates it.

The broadcast discussing Egypt’s treatment of migrants, on the other hand, says nothing about the UN Convention relating to refugees, and tells listeners nothing about charges that Egypt violaties its legal commitments, even though there is no shortage of organizations charging Egypt with flouting international law.

“An Egyptian legal source said Friday that a Sudanese couple among the detained refugees had been released from detention by Egyptian authorities after the husband was tortured during an interrogation centering on why he had gone to Israel.

“They poured boiling water on his body and took the man and blindfolded his eyes and said ‘if you don’t tell us the real reason you went there we will shoot you,’ said the legal source.

“The source said there have been other instances of refugees who have been tortured…”

– Ben Lynfield, Ha’aretz, 10/28/07
In fact, only two days before NPR relayed the charge that Israeli migrant policy was in violation of an international convention, thirteen Egyptian human rights organizations called on Egypt “to live up to [its] obligations under national and international laws and take immediate action to secure the release of the hostages currently detained,” a reference to Eritreans held hostage by Egyptian traffickers in the Sinai and ignored by authorities. And a few months before NPR’s broadcast about migrants in Egypt, Human Rights Watch charged the country with “unlawful killings of migrants and asylum seekers” in violation of both the “right to life” and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. These violations, and others, were cited by the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights not long after the broadcast.
Groups also point to Egypt’s deportations of migrants as violating international law. In an April 2010 document entitled “Egypt: Don’t Deport Darfur Refugees to Face Persecution,” Human Rights Watch asserts that  
  • “Under international refugee law, including the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Egypt is a party, a state may not deport persons recognized as refugees by UNHCR to countries where they are at risk of persecution.”
  • “Under refugee law and under the UN Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Egypt may not return anyone to a country where he or she faces the risk of torture, ill-treatment or persecution, an act known as ‘refoulement.'”
The organization accuses Egypt of doing both. In another document, published in January 2009, it cites the ongoing “flouting of Egypt’s international obligations with respect to Eritreans.”
Ironically, it is Egypt’s alleged violation of international law (ignored by NPR) that is largely responsible for concerns (trumpeted by NPR) about the legality of Israel’s occasional return of migrants to Egypt. As Time Magazine noted in December 2009:
Sigal Rozen says Israel operates an unofficial “hot return” procedure, under which it deports asylum seekers to Egypt provided they crossed within a certain area of the border. Rozen says this policy is illegal by international law “as Israel receives no guarantee that these people will be treated humanely on the other side.”

“[PHR-I Executive Director Ran] Cohen estimated that since late 2009, when the traffickers turned to extortion and violence, 6,000 to 7,000 Eritreans have entered Israel, almost all of them with help from the traffickers. The majority reported being subjected to abuse, he said.

“For some, medical attention in Israel heals their wounds. Others bear more difficult burdens, such as pregnancy. ‘Today was very terrible,’ Kidane said, sadly. ‘I interviewed five people. One lady was sexually abused for 15 days, she was pregnant and the [Israeli] government helped her to get an abortion. She was abused by many, many men.’

“Kidane observed, ‘She’s married and has children and said, “I never dreamed this could happen to me.”‘

“As of November, Kidane’s clinic facilitated 165 abortions this year. She suspects that half were requested by women who had been sexually assaulted in Sinai.”

– Nathan Jeffay, The Forward, 12/29/10
Rozen, recall, is the same activist heard on NPR charging that Israel violates its legal commitments, but without any hint that this is tied to Egypt’s behavior. Did Rozen make this clear in her discussion with NPR, as she did with Time, only to have it elided by the network? Regardless, NPR leaves listeners unaware that Rozen’s Hotline for Migrant Workers and other organizations see Egypt’s illegal refoulement and mistreatment of migrants as the primary reason for their concern over the possibility that Israeli might send certain asylum seekers back to Egypt.
The headline of NPR’s broadcast about Egypt (“Egyptian Forces Accused of Shooting Asylum Seekers”), with its passive voice announcing that Egypt is merely “accused” of shooting, further downplays the country’s mistreatment of refugees. Just a few days before the broadcast, a high ranking Egyptian official left no doubt that the country does, in fact, shoot of migrants. Again from the December 2009 article in Time Magazine:

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki says Cairo is doing everything it can to strike a balance between the humane treatment of the asylum seekers and the protection of its borders. “This is a vast desert area, manned by fewer troops than you may think. When our troops see individuals at night, they ask them to stop through loudspeakers. If the individuals fail to do that, we fire in the air. After that, they are forced to shoot at the individuals.”

“This practice is the same when it comes to women and children,” Zaki says.

And a few months earlier, Muhammad Shousha, the governor of North Sinai, told an Egyptian newspaper:
Of course it’s not a mistake that we shoot them – it’s necessary to shoot them. To deal with an infiltrator, he has to be fired at. If we say, ‘Stop where are you going?’ he’s not going to stop so we have to shoot him. The distance to the border is only a few meters so if the infiltrator does not realize that if he goes near the border he will be shot at, the situation will be chaotic.
Which brings us to another difference between NPR’s two broadcasts. Unlike the piece about Israel, which quoted tough language by a government official, the NPR broadcasts did not quote Zaki or any other straight-talking Egyptian politicians exposing the uglier side of the country’s policy debates. 

This discrepancy — like the passive-voiced headline, the selective citation of international law, the racism innuendo and the focus on Israel in an article about Egypt — is a secondary symptom of a much larger problem. With its addiction to bad news from Israel, NPR is missing the much larger story about African migrants in the Middle East, and leaving its listeners strikingly uninformed about their plight.

“One young woman from Ethiopia agrees to talk. She asks to be called Amira, although it is not her real name.

“‘We had been told to pay $2,000, but when we got to the Sinai they said the price was $3,000,’ Amira recalls. ‘Those who refused to pay were beaten.’

“She says the men were then forced to watch as their wives were raped in front of them.”

BBC News, 1/31/10
These listeners, who are steeped in coverage critical of Israel, would be forgiven for knowing nothing of the startling number of African migrants raped by Egyptian traffickers; the beatings; the skin scalded by hot irons and boiling water; the electric shocks and the hanging by hands and feet; the hostage-taking and extortion; or the forced labor. According to the Nexis database, Morning Edition and the other major NPR news shows have not once bothered to report on these abuses.
A search through the archives of these news shows in hopes of finding a thorough discussion of Egyptian mistreatment of migrants would, however, yield an August 2010 segment about the children of foreign workers in Israel entitled “Plan to Expel Migrant Children Stirs Israeli Emotion.” Further searching uncovers a March 2007 broadcast entitled “Israel Wary of Sudanese Refugees” — yet another Morning Edition piece taking Israel to task for “wariness” while ignoring all that is happening in neighboring Egypt.
NPR’s Morning Edition and Weekend Edition once did devote their attention entirely to Egypt’s relationship with its migrant population. This was in January 2006, a few days after the roughly 30 Sudanese migrants were killed when Egyptian police raided a protest camp. In the five years that followed, during which conditions for migrants in Egyptian cities and the Sinai deteriorated sharply, Morning Edition ran three and a half segments dedicated to African migrants in Israel, and only half a segment dedicated to the migrants in Egypt.
“Of the 13 women who agreed to answer such questions, 38% answered that they had been assaulted. … the following information is based on an average of 144 responses. 77% of Eritreans and Ethiopians reported physical assault including punching, slapping, kicking and whipping (compared to 63% of patients from other African countries). 23% of Eritreans and Ethiopians reported burning, branding, electric shock, and hanging by the hands or feet.  No patients from other countries reported this phenomenon. 47% of Eritreans and Ethiopians reported seeing others beaten or tortured.  94% of Eritreans and Ethiopians reported being deprived of food and 74% reported being deprived of water.
It is unlikely that NPR consciously downplays negative coverage of Egypt. More probable is that the network has wildly different thresholds of newsworthiness for Israel and its neighbors. While it takes the slaying of dozens of migrants to prompt a stand-alone story critical of Egypt, for Israel, it takes only some perceived “wariness,” or the lack of a “welcome mat.” As a result, listeners hear story after story scrutinizing Israel, and quote after quote criticizing the country. And so it would only be natural for those who regularly tune in to Morning Edition to draw the conclusion that it’s mainly in Israel that migrants face adversity. It is a small step from there to the misguided view that the most pressing problem migrants face is Israeli wariness. For listeners, this warped view is a disservice. For the migrants, lack of public awareness of their plight is potentially dangerous.

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