a move local human rights activists say is unprecedented, Egypt
deported at least 1,200 asylum seekers in June. Against both domestic
and international law and in spite of a warning by the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they would likely be
arrested and even tortured upon their return, the government allegedly
prevented thousands of Eritreans from claiming asylum before deporting
them back to Eritrea.
is safe to say up to 1,200 Eritreans were forcibly returned,” says
Nicole Choueiry, Middle East press officer for London-based human
rights group Amnesty International. “And we know that many of them have
since been arrested in Eritrea.”
of the 1,200 Eritrean detainees, some of whom aid workers say were
already registered as refugees in Sudan, had been held since February
after being arrested and charged with crossing the Egyptian border
illegally. UNHCR officials say they were barred from accessing the
detainees until June, when just 175 were allowed to apply for refugee
status in the midst of the deportations. Several hundred are still
being held in detention centers from Sinai to Aswan, according to
government sources have unofficially confirmed the deportations to both
Amnesty and the Reuters news agency, it is still unclear why Eritreans
were specifically targeted. Spokespersons from both the Ministry of
Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were unavailable for
Traditionally benevolent towards refugees seeking asylum within its
borders, Egypt has come under mounting pressure in recent months to
stem the steady flow of African migrants over the Israeli border. In a
major policy shift, the government has since cracked down on the asylum
seekers reaching its own shores, of which Eritreans now make up a
and human rights workers say this break from former policy paints Egypt
as an increasingly unsafe place for both registered refugees and asylum
seekers, and sets a dangerous precedent for the way they may be treated
in the future.
a country has so quickly broken red lines and started to slide
downward, it is very difficult to know how far it will slide and how
fast,” says Michael Kagan, Senior Fellow in Human Rights at the
American University in Cairo (AUC). “If I were a refugee in Egypt, I
would not feel very secure right now.”Fleeing Repression
believe Eritreans are being targeted simply because of their numbers —
they are the fastest growing refugee group in the region, with the
Eritrean diaspora making up at least a quarter of all Eritreans.
The UNHCR says thousands of Eritreans have begun a new exodus to Sudan,
which already hosts nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees and received
10,000 in 2007 alone. The number of Eritreans fleeing to Egypt has also
jumped, say researchers with the Center of Migration and Refugee
Studies (CMRS), while according to the Refugee Law Clinic at Tel Aviv
University, Eritreans have surpassed Sudanese as the largest migrant
group in Israel. Thirty-six thousand Eritreans applied for asylum
worldwide in 2007.
the tiny nation in the Horn of Africa gained independence from Ethiopia
in 1993, after a long separatist war with the Ethiopian government,
Eritrea has been in a perpetual state of conflict with its neighbors.
unresolved border disputes with both Ethiopia and Djibouti, the
Eritrean government has amassed one of the largest armies on the
continent — 320,000 soldiers, according to the World Bank. Virtually
every Eritrean man and woman is subject to long, grueling and sometimes
fatal military conscription.
don’t get paid a salary in the military, and you can’t build a future
because they keep you for so long,” says Ammanuel, a 28-year-old
Eritrean refugee living in Cairo who spoke on the condition that his
real name not be published. “We have families waiting for us. No one
wants to spend their life in the military.”
for draft evasion, which the Eritrean government sees as a form of
political opposition, include torture and being held without any means
of communication with the outside world.
has become by some accounts the most totalitarian state in Africa,”
Kagan says. “It has a government that is all-controlling and highly
minorities in the majority Muslim country have also come under intense
persecution from the secular-minded government, which has banned all
religious organizations from participating in political activities.
Mainly Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but also some Sunni
Muslims, are fleeing state repression.
The country’s heavily state-controlled media and severely restrictive visa policies leave it almost completely isolated.
is repressive enough that merely leaving the country and seeking asylum
abroad can have you perceived as being disloyal to the government,”
a result, Eritreans have been fleeing the country en masse, primarily
to Ethiopia and Sudan. But increasingly miserable and unsafe conditions
in eastern Sudan’s sprawling refugee camps, where Eritreans have
recently become subject to both arrest and deportation by Sudanese
security forces, have made Egypt and Israel comparatively attractive
and almost necessary destinations for Eritrean asylum seekers in the
on what is known as “secondary movement,” the Eritrean refugees facing
persecution in the first country they sought asylum consequently fled
across the border to another.
is no security in Sudan,” says Ammanuel, who was deported from Sudan to
Eritrea before fleeing across the border once again. “You can be
deported at any time.”Targeting Eritreans
it is unclear when the mass detention of Eritreans in Egypt began,
local aid workers say systematic arrests by Egyptian border police
started at the beginning of the year.
law prohibits the criminalization of “illegal migration” if the migrant
is seeking refugee status and Egypt’s Constitution grants every
foreigner the right to asylum.
because the Egyptian government does not maintain its own asylum
system, people cannot claim refugee status at Egypt’s borders. Asylum
seekers must make the journey to the UNHCR headquarters in Sixth of
October City or alert the refugee agency of their whereabouts.
majority of the Eritreans arrested were therefore convicted of entering
Egypt illegally — either smuggled in or in the country without a valid
visa — and subsequently detained. According to UNHCR figures,
approximately 1,400 Eritreans had been held in prisons and detention
centers across the country since February, from Qanater prison in Cairo
to the Shalal military detention center in Aswan.
first rumors of mass deportations surfaced in June, however, when the
Eritrean embassy was reported to be issuing hundreds of emergency
travel documents. On June 3, EritreaDaily, an Eritrean online news
portal, ran a report by the ASSIST News Service claiming Egyptian
authorities were set to begin the deportation of some 150 Eritrean
asylum seekers at Qanater.
days later, Amnesty confirmed the rumors when it reported that
approximately 200 Eritrean asylum seekers had been deported from Shalal
in the early hours of June 12, and that Egyptian authorities appeared
to have scheduled a number of special flights to Asmara and Massawa in
the following week, from June 12–19, some 1,200 Eritreans who were
prevented from applying for refugee status would be deported from Cairo
and Aswan International Airports, according to Amnesty reports. At
least 425 were flown from Aswan to Massawa from June 12–14, while
another 780 were deported from Cairo on June 18 and 19, the human
rights organization says.
Amnesty and the UNHCR warn that repatriated Eritreans face harsh human
rights abuses in Eritrea, including torture or even disappearing
lot of people in Eritrea are still held in secret, and we haven’t been
able to get in touch with them,” says Choueiry. “We know that many of
them [deportees] have been arrested.”
hundred Eritreans remain in detention in Egypt and are at risk of
deportation. According to Amnesty observers, at least 175 remain at
Shalal, while close to 300 are detained in Hurghada and Marsa Alam.
About 50 are being held at Qanater.
numbers are higher than those of the UNHCR, which Amnesty says may not
yet be aware of even more Eritreans detained in Egypt’s prisons.
press time, the last confirmed deportation was on June 19, and global
UNHCR head Antonio Guterres had announced his agency was in discussions
with the Egyptian government regarding the deportations.Benign Neglect
worries activists, refugees and aid workers alike is that this may
signify the beginning of a major shift in Egypt’s traditional open-door
policy toward refugees. While the government previously did little in
the way of providing assistance to refugees, it was generally tolerant
of African migrants seeking refuge inside its borders.
has been very good at allowing people to enter its territory and seek
asylum,” says Barbara Harrell-Bond, adjunct professor of Forced
Migration and Refugee Studies at AUC. “So it’s very shocking that this
situation has developed and been allowed to continue.”
refugee population is mainly made up of Sudanese, Somalis, Iraqis,
Ethiopians, Eritreans and others from sub-Saharan Africa. The UNHCR
puts the official number of refugees —meaning those registered with the
agency — at 50,000. Harrell-Bond says she thinks the figure is closer
to 500,000, while Eritreans number anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000.
UNHCR is responsible for supplying refugees with basic needs, and
because of the low official count, funding from international donors is
minimal and sustenance difficult to maintain. The agency requested just
over $7 million (LE 37.1 million) to cover its Egypt operations in 2008.
just living out their lives in limbo, eking out a very sad existence,”
says a researcher with CMRS who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“There’s no hope for the future.”
refugees are granted temporary residence and documents — blue or yellow
“refugee” cards — signfying they are under United Nations protection,
they do not have access to legal employment or public education and
healthcare in Egypt.
don’t have the legal right to work; they essentially depend on
humanitarian aid from the UN and a network of churches and NGOs for
their basic needs,” says Kagan. “Their children may or may not be able
to get an education. If they get a serious illness, they may or may not
be able to get effective treatment for it.”
marginalization and discrimination on a daily basis in Egypt, many
refugees say blatant racism on Cairo’s streets simply forces them to
stay at home.
hard to go out to hospitals, cafes, to any public place,” says
Ammanuel. “Sometimes I am stopped by police, and they don’t even know
what my [UN-issued] blue refugee card is. They don’t know what a
refugee is and demand to know where I’m from. This causes problems.”
the many legal and socioeconomic challenges refugees face, Egypt was at
the very least a place where they were safe from refoulement, a French
legal term referring to the forcible return of an asylum seeker to a
place where they are likely to face persecution. Deportations of even
unregistered asylum seekers were unheard of.
August of last year, I couldn’t have pointed to a single case of
documented deportation of a refugee under UNHCR protection in Egypt,”
says Kagan. “This is why I say we have taken a very dark turn very
rapidly, and we just don’t know how far the government refugee policy
Over the past year, deportations of registered Sudanese and Iraqi
refugees were reported. Egyptian security forces have also shot 17
African refugees, including many Eritreans, crossing the Israeli border
since the beginning of the year. But the deportation of Eritrean
refugees and asylum seekers has been the largest so far, and the
refugee community is understandably nervous.
this happened, if someone knocked on a refugee’s door in the middle of
the night, he would think ‘It’s okay, it’s just a friend. I’m safe
here,’” Ammanuel says. “Now, if someone knocks on a refugee’s door, he
is scared. He won’t answer. He doesn’t know what will happen.”
Questions surrounding the government’s motives are also fuelling both confusion and fear.
Egyptian government has been very secretive about what it is doing and
has not felt any compulsion to give a public explanation for its
policy,” Kagan says. “We can’t assume they won’t go farther, especially
when we just don’t know what’s driving this policy. It’s clearly gone
from one of benign neglect to one of malice.”
least the government can do, activists say, is pull back from the
deportations, detentions and actions at the Israeli border and offer an
explanation as to why they have begun targeting asylum seekers.
has long been a country where refugees didn’t enjoy their rights, but
at least they were safe from refoulement,” says Harrell-Bond. “Now the
question is: are they?” et