JERUSALEM: 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 240-kilometre fence neared completion.
A total of 36 migrants crossed into Israel from Egypt in December, all of whom were detained, compared with 2295 in January last year. The numbers steadily declined throughout last year as construction of the vast steel fence through the desert from Eilat to the border with Gaza progressed.
''We have succeeded in blocking the phenomenon of illegal infiltrators,'' the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said.
''It has been several months now that no infiltrator has reached [the Israeli cities of] Eilat, Be'er Sheva, 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.''
More than 9000 migrants were deported in 2012, including almost 4000 from African countries.
Critics of the deportation policy said many migrants faced 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.
But she added that Israel's policy of preventing refugees crossing the fence, which was built on Israeli territory, was illegal under international law.
''If a person is asking for asylum, a country has a duty to check their request,'' Ms Rosen said.
The fence along the southern border was estimated to have cost about 1.4 billion shekels ($360 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.
The aim was to have it finished by the end of last year.
The gaps, which total 12.8 kilometres, are on mountainous terrain near the Red Sea resort of Eilat.
The purpose of the fence was 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, had entered Israel illegally from Egypt since 2006, according to government figures.
A US State Department report on human rights noted that Israel approved one out of 4603 applications for asylum in 2011.
Guardian News & Media