August 2008  Volume # 29  Issue 08 
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Associated Press

Thousands of African refugees protest their treatm
August 2008
Extraordinary Repatriation
Breaking from policies of the past, Egypt has targeted hundreds of Eritrean asylum seekers for deportation
By  Erin Cunningham

In 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.

“It 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.”

Many 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 Amnesty International.

Although 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 comment.

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 substantial part.

Activists 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.

“Once 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

Many 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.

Since 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.

Facing 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.

“You 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.”

Penalties 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.

“Eritrea has become by some accounts the most totalitarian state in Africa,” Kagan says. “It has a government that is all-controlling and highly repressive.”

Religious 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.

“Eritrea is repressive enough that merely leaving the country and seeking asylum abroad can have you perceived as being disloyal to the government,” Kagan says.

As 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 past year.

Embarking 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.

“There 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

Although 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.

International 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.

But 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Ten 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 Eritrea.

Over 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.

Both Amnesty and the UNHCR warn that repatriated Eritreans face harsh human rights abuses in Eritrea, including torture or even disappearing altogether.

“A 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.”

Several 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.

These 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.

At 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

What 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.

“Egypt 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.”

Egypt’s 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.

The 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.

“They’re 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.”

While 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.

“They 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.”

Facing 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.

“It’s 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.”

Despite 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.

“Before 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 will slide.”

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.

“Before 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.

“The 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.”

The 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.

“Egypt 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

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