Quick Facts

Prisons/police stations/camps used for migrant detention: Approx. 30

Dedicated immigration detention sites: 0

Maximum length of administrative detention: No Limit

Asylum Seekers: 13,443 (January 2010)

Last updated: April 2011

Egypt Detention Profile

Detention Policy

Detention Infrastructure

Facts & Figures


Long a lightening rod for criticism because of its treatment of migrants, Egypt is—as of this writing in early 2011—undergoing historic political change, the ramifications of which with respect to the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers remains unclear. Egypt’s policy during the last few decades has been to charge unauthorized migrants with criminal violations stemming from their irregular status and then detain them in prisons alongside hardened criminals and in poor and overcrowded conditions. Among the issues that have spurred international condemnation of the country include its “shoot-to-stop” policy targeting migrants crossing from Egypt to Israel; denying detained migrants access to appeal; mass forced returns of Eritreans, who face persecution in their country; preventing UNHCR and other rights bodies access to detainees; and the indefinite detention of stateless persons and unregistered asylum seekers.


Detention Policy


Article 41 of the Egyptian Constitution prohibits the arbitrary arrest and detention of persons in Egypt, stating: “No person may be arrested, inspected, detained or have his freedom restricted in any way or be prevented from free movement except by an order necessitated by investigations and the preservation of public security, and issued by a competent judge or Public Prosecution.”


However, since 1981, Egypt has been under a “state of emergency,” which is provided for in the 1958 Emergency Law (CIHRS 2010, p.2). Article 3.1 of this law grants authority to the president, when a state of emergency has been declared, to issue an oral or written order for the arrest of “suspects or persons who are dangerous to public security and order, detaining them, and allowing personal and place searches without [being] restricted  by the provisions of the Law of Criminal Procedures.” While it is unclear to what extent the emergency law has impacted the arbitrary detention of foreign nationals, one source in Egypt told the Global Detention Project that its article 3.1 ceased to be applicable after the anti-government protests began on 25 January 2011 (Undisclosed source 2011c).


The principle laws governing the arrest, detention, and deportation of migrants are The Law of Entry and Residence of Aliens in the Territories of the United Arab Republic and their Departure Therefrom (1960) (Law of Entry and Residence), and The Presidential Decree Security of the Eastern Border of Arab Republic of Egypt (1995). The applicable law depends on where and when a migrant is apprehended.


The Law of Entry and Residence of Aliens in the Territories of the United Arab Republic and their Departure Therefrom. According to the Law of Entry and Residence, asylum seekers, refugees and irregular migrants can be subject to both criminal penalties and administrative detention for unauthorized entry or residence. Criminal sanctions, however, are reportedly rarely applied (Undisclosed source 2011b).


Article 3 of the Law of Entry and Residence prohibits migrants from entering and exiting the country at any points other than those designated as official border crossing points. Article 2 of this law prohibits entry and exit without a valid legal document/passport. Migrants who violate Articles 2 and 3 can face a criminal trial and/or penalties that include imprisonment for up to six months and/or a fine of up to one thousand Egyptian pounds, and deportation from the country (Art. 41). These penalties are also applied to asylum seekers, despite the protections against such measures provided in the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Egypt is a signatory.


After completing criminal sentences for immigration violations, non-citizens are placed in administrative detention until deported (Art. 27). The Minister of Interior has the authority to deport non-citizens, and can order temporary detention until deportation is possible. When a deportation decision is difficult to enforce, the Director of Passports, Immigration and Nationality Administration can order an alien to reside at a specific place and periodically report to a police station until deported (Art. 30). Deported persons are prohibited from re-entering the country, unless granted permission to do so by the Minister of Interior (Art. 31). Non-citizens found to violate this article can be subject to imprisonment with labour for a minimum of one year (Art. 39).


A non-citizen can be issued with an order of deportation by the Director of Passports, Immigration and Nationality and Administration if he/she: Enters the country by “illegal methods”; fails to obtain a residence permit following the expiry of an entry visa; violates the “purpose” for which he/she obtained residency; fails to depart from the country within fifteen days from the expiry date of the residence period, unless a request for renewal has been approved prior to the expiry of the original residence period; or fails to depart from the country within fifteen days from the date of being notified of the refusal to grant residency or renewal of residency. The director has the authority to detain or order residence at a designated place to enforce the banishment order (Art. 31 Bis).


Non-citizens who “contravene” without permission the original purpose for which they were authorised to enter or reside in Egypt can be penalized with fines of up to two thousand pounds and can be banished from the country (Art. 42). In addition, the captain of a vessel that arrives in Egypt who fails to account for all passengers, including notifying authorities of any passengers not in possession of a valid passport, is liable to imprisonment for up to six months and/or a fine of up to one thousand pounds (Art. 41).


“Aliens” who represent “a threat to the State and country security and safety, internally or abroad, or to its national economy, public health, public moral, or public tranquillity, or he is a burden on the state” can be issued with a deportation order (Art. 26) and are referred to the Deportation Committee, which must issue a “view” on the deportation order “without delay” (Art. 29).


Non-citizens who violate the terms of an order of deportation or banishment,  fail to reside at a designated residence, or provide false statements or knowingly submit false documentation to Egyptian authorities can be sentenced with up to two years imprisonment and/or to pay a fine of up to two thousand pounds (Arts. 38, 40). Penalties are more severe for foreign nationals who (a) are citizens of a country in a state of war with Egypt; or (b) entered Egypt at the border areas listed by decree of the minister of interior, in agreement with the minister of foreign affairs (Art. 41).


In practice, the prosecution of illegal immigrants is not systematically applied  in Egypt. According to one source interview by the GDP, since 2008, those arrested for illegal entry to/exit from the country have generally received a suspended sentence—a sentence issued by a judge which will not be enforced if the defendant meets certain conditions—exempting the migrant from serving the sentence. In most cases, judges refer these cases to the immigration department, which reviews the status of the foreign national and determines whether they should be released, deported, or detained (Undisclosed source 2011b).


According to one observer, “the criminalisation of irregular migration is considered disproportionate to the violation and can often lead to additional human rights abuses—a particular concern in Egypt, where, as the UN and other human rights groups have noted, torture in prison is widespread, and where non-nationals frequently are denied access to procedural safeguards and adequate legal representation” (Hilal and Samy 2008, p.12).


The Law of Entry and Residence does not contain any provisions guaranteeing rights to detained migrants, such as access to a lawyer. Asylum seekers, refugees, stateless persons and migrants arrested for illegal entry at non-authorised border points fall within the jurisdiction of the nearest military tribunal and have no access to appeal, a practice that has been criticized as violation of Egypt’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Art. 14) and the Arab Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which provide for due process and a fair trial (Art. 26). Irregular migrants and refugees are sometimes given an appeal in court, though this appears to occur on an ad hoc basis (Undisclosed source 2011a).


As of March 2011 there was no maximum length of administrative detention in Egyptian law. Once foreign nationals complete their sentences they should, according to the Law of Entry and Residence, be moved to one of the prisons designated to hold foreign nationals awaiting deportation. In practice, however, there have been cases in which foreign nationals apprehended at the Sudanese border were initially detained at one of the police stations located in southern Egypt. Then, after completing a one-year prison sentence for illegal entry at the Borg El Arab prison, they were confined for an additional three months at the same police station where they were initially detained, as provided for in the law in cases where the fine for illegal entry is not paid. After this three-month period, the migrants were transferred to the Qanater Men’s Prison, registered with an immigration status and then kept in detention for an additional period of time, until deportation. When deportation is not possible, detention can be indefinite (Undisclosed source 2011b).


The Presidential Decree Security of the Eastern Border of Arab Republic of Egypt (1995) prohibits the movement of persons within one hundred and fifty meters of the eastern border (with Israel), between Rafah in the north and Taba in the south, apart from Rafah city and other locations permitted by law or the military (Art. 1). The military has the authority to sentence anyone who violates this law with imprisonment for at least six months (Art. 2, 5). Anyone who attempts to enter or exit the country illegally through the eastern borders faces imprisonment and a fine of up to five thousand Egyptian pounds, and the means of transport used by the person to enter/exit the country can be confiscated, along with any goods being carried in the vehicle (Art. 2).


In addition, anyone who participates in the process of enabling passage across the border—such as through use of underground tunnels—faces imprisonment. Penalties include temporary hard labour if the passageway is used for the transfer of weapons, ammunition or explosives across the border (Art. 3).


“Shoot-to-stop” policy. Egypt’s “shoot-to-stop” policy targeting migrants attempting to cross from Egypt into Israel has been widely condemned (USCRI 2009; AI 2008a; HRW 2010a, p.494; UN News Service 2010a). Some 85 unarmed migrants were reportedly killed at the border between July 2007 and October 2010 (HRW 2010b).


The policy was introduced in 2007 after intense pressure from Israel to halt the smuggling of migrants across the Sinai border (AI 2008a, p.3). Many migrants are also apprehended at this border, stripped of their belongings, referred to the nearest military prosecutor and military court, and charged by the military prosecutor with “attempting to exit unlawfully the Egyptian eastern border.” According to one observer, the court generally suspends the sentence of these migrants and hands them over to the immigration department to commence deportation procedures (Undisclosed source 2011b; AI 2008, p.2-3).


In March 2010, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called for an independent inquiry into the deaths of migrants on Egypt’s border, most of whom are of sub-Saharan African origin (OHCHR2010; EIPR 2010). She said, “While migrants often lose their lives accidently while travelling in over-crowded boats, or trying to cross remote land borders, I know of no other country where so many unarmed migrants and asylum-seekers appear to have been deliberately killed in this way by Government forces. It is a deplorable state of affairs, and the sheer number of victims suggests that at least some Egyptian security officials have been operating a shoot-to-kill policy” (OHCHR 2010). Fourteen Egyptian NGOs condemned the justification provided by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who claimed the fatalities “did not exceed 2 percent in 2008 and 4 percent in 2009 of the total number of illegal crossers” (EIPR 2010).


Human Rights Watch criticised the appointment of Egypt as chair of UNHCR’s governing body, in October 2010, stating that “Egypt today becomes chair of the UNHCR’s governing body; while back home it shoots unarmed migrants and blocks UNHCR’s access to detainees seeking the agency’s protection. … To be consistent with its position as the executive committee’s new chair, Egypt needs to put its own house in order” (HRW 2010b).


Forcible returns. Observers have criticised Egyptian authorities for the mass forced returns of Eritrean asylum seekers since mid-2008 (AI 2008a, p.3). In June 2008, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Egypt to “respect its international obligations not to send home anyone who could face torture or other serious forms of ill treatment” (UN 2008). According to one NGO, up to 1,200 asylum-seekers were returned to Eritrea during 12-19 June 2008 despite warnings that they were at grave risk of immediate detention, torture and other ill-treatment on their return. Those returned, including pregnant women and children, are often exposed to violence during their deportation and are frequently denied access to appeal mechanisms and the UNHCR for asylum protection. They are often detained at the Wia desert prison upon their arrival in Eritrea (AI 2009, p.6).


The Special Rapporteur on Torture found that at least 98 Eritreans had been detained at the Nakhil police station and in police detention facilities in al-Arish, North Sinai, in December 2008, after attempting to enter Israel. Detainees were reportedly beaten, and at least 64 people were forcibly returned to Eritrea by the beginning of 2009, without being granted access to UNHCR representatives (Nowak 2010, p. 97-98).


Asylum Seekers. Egypt is party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its Protocol, with reservations in relation to personal status, rationing, public relief and education, labour legislation, and social security. It is also a signatory to the African Union Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (USCRI 2009). While Egypt’s Constitution provides that the country shall “grant the right of political asylum to every foreigner persecuted for defending the people’s interest, human rights, peace or justice,” no national determination procedures have been developed for the recognition of refugees (ERT 2010, p.144). In addition, Egyptian law does not provide protection for stateless persons, and Egypt is not party to either of the Statelessness Conventions (ERT 2010, p.144).


While asylum seekers and stateless persons have the right to legal representation, the lack of access to asylum procedures frequently leaves them subject to criminal and administrative detention based on charges of illegal entry and residence in Egypt (HRW 2010a, p.494; USCRI 2009). The UNHCR Cairo office has the authority to make Refugee Status Determinations (RSDs) based on a 1954 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Egyptian authorities (USCRI 2009). However, UNHCR representatives in Egypt are often denied access to detention facilities, refugees and asylum-seekers (AI 2008a, p.4; HRW 2010a, p. 494), or have their access restricted to those refugees or asylum seekers already registered with the UNHCR prior to their arrest, or on a case by case basis (Undisclosed source 2011c). One observer claims that this may “prevent victims of trafficking and/or smuggling from coming forward to report their situations” (Hilal and Samy 2008, p.12).


Rejected asylum applicants are now provided with reasons for their rejection (Undisclosed source 2011a) and they must appeal the decision within one month. Rejected or late appeals result in cases being closed, a loss of UNHCR protection, and are at risk of deportation. Stateless persons often face indefinite detention because they cannot be deported (ERT 2010, p.145).



Detention Infrastructure


One source told the Global Detention Project that Egypt does not operate facilities specifically for migrants. Rather, the country’s prisons, police stations and sometimes military camps are used to detain migrants and refugees apprehended at the borders or arrested and detained (Undisclosed source 2011b). Various human rights observers, researchers, articles, and reports support these claims (HRW 2008, p.29; Grindell 2003, p.30-31; Malek 2008, p.31-46; IDC 2009).


There are around 25 prisons in Egypt (MOI 2007), however the Global Detention Project has not been able to obtain a full list of facilities used for the detention of migrants based on their status.


Some of the prisons and police stations reported as being used to detain migrants based on their status include the Tura prison, Cairo (Undisclosed source 2011a; 2010a; Grindell 2003); Qanater prison, Cairo (Undisclosed source 2011; 2010a; Nowak 2010, p.108; Bustamante 2010); Estinaf prison, Cairo, Aswan city police station (Undisclosed source 2011a; Malek 2008, p.31); Nasr El Nuba police station (Undisclosed source 2011a; Malek 2008, p.38); Shallal military camp (Malek 2008, ps.31-32); Ismailia prison (Undisclosed source 2011; Malek 2008, p.46); Qena police station (Undisclosed source 2011a; Malek 2008, p.42); Borg-el Arab prison in the outskirts of Alexandria; Hadra prison, Alexandria; Port Sa’id prison (Undisclosed source 2011a; 2010a); Kom Ombo police station; Edfu police station; Hurghada police stations (2); Marsa Alam police station; Daraw police station (Undisclosed source 2011a; Malek 2008, p.36-44); Ras Gharib police station on the beach of the Suez Gulf (Malek 2008, p.46; Undisclosed source 2011a; 2010a); the Nakhl police station (Undisclosed source 2011a; AI 2009, p.6; HRW 2009), the Romana police station, Bir El Abd police station, four police stations in Arish and the Hassana police station, all situated in the Sinai region; and the El Mostaqbal police station, located in Ismailia (Undisclosed source 2011c).


A 1986 decree (Decree 659) established that the following prisons be used for the temporary custody of foreigners awaiting deportation: Qanater El Khayereya men prison, Qanater El Khayereya Women’s prison; the prison in Alexandria; Port Said pison and Tura pison. These are regular prisons in Egypt, used to incarcerate criminally charged Egyptian citizens (Undisclosed source 2011b).


In addition, the Khalifa police transit section is an administrative office located in Cairo, responsible for the registration and transfer of detainees from one prison or police station to another. It is equipped with cells used to hold detainees being transferred in the country for between a few hours and up to weeks at a time (Undisclosed source 2011b; Grindell 2003, p.viii; Amir Jabir 2010).


The immigration department offices are located in the government building Mogamma, in Cairo. This office is responsible for processing migrants and for carrying out deportation procedures. The office is not used to confine migrants (Undisclosed source 2011c; Grindell 2003, p.viii).


The Interior Minister is the government authority with custody over immigration detainees held in prisons in Egypt, and is also responsible for the administration of the prisons in the country (Undisclosed source 2011b).


NGOs and International Organisations, including UNHCR, have little or no access to the facilities and no access to detainees, and little is known about the conditions of many of these facilities. According to accounts provided by migrants and refugees who have spent time in detention in Egypt, between 20-25 people share cells of about 8x10 meters in Egyptian prisons, with access to one toilet and washing/drinking facility between them. A blanket is provided to each prisoner—their only bedding. Treatment of detainees varies greatly depending on individual prison officials (Undisclosed source 2010b).


While segregation of males and females is generally respected in Egyptian prisons (HRW 2008, p.32), children are reportedly detained alongside adults (Nowak 2010). However, minors are generally held with their mothers and unaccompanied children are generally detained with women (Undisclosed source 2011a). Administrative detainees—including refugees, asylum seekers and irregular migrants—are frequently detained alongside criminal detainees (Nowak 2010; Grindell, Richard 2003, p.30; HRW 2008, p.29). While foreign nationals are frequently held alongside Egyptian citizens in police stations, they are, where space permits, detained separately from Egyptian citizens in prisons (Undisclosed source 2010b; ERT 2010, p.146).



Facts & Figures


There are approximately 25 prisons in Egypt (MOI 2007). However, the Global Detention Project has not been able to obtain a full list of facilities used for the purposes of immigration-related detention.


One observer estimates that more than 2,000 people were arrested attempting to cross the Sinai border during 2007-2010, of which approximately 90 percent were Eritrean citizens, and 80 percent were young men. At least 85 unarmed migrants were reportedly fatally shot attempting to cross from Egypt to Israel during this period (HRW 2010), and approximately 91 Africans were unaccounted for in November 2008 after having been returned to Egypt from Israel (USCRI 2009).


Approximately 1,400 Eritreans were forcibly returned from Egypt to Eritrea in 2008, where they faced the risk of torture and other serious human rights violations (USCRI 2009), and approximately 180 were granted access to the UNHCR (UN News Service 2008), most of who were granted refugee status (Undisclosed source 2011a).


Irregular migrants are arrested at the Egyptian-Israeli border for irregular exit and infiltration; at the Libyan-Egyptian border for irregular entry; and at the Sudanese-Egyptian border for irregular entry and exit (Undisclosed source 2010a). Until the end of 2008, migrants and refugees arrested at the border were tried before a military court, sentenced to one year imprisonment and fined. The sentence for illegal entry and exit has currently been suspended, but those arrested are kept in detention until they can be repatriated (Undisclosed source 2010b).


As of January 2010 there were 94,406 official refugees and 13,443 asylum seekers in Egypt (UNHCR 2010); however, unofficial estimates place the number much higher. One NGO reported that during 2008, Egypt hosted approximately 122,400 refugees and asylum seekers, including 70,000 Palestinians, 23,000 Sudanese, and 20,000 Iraqis. Around 42,500 of these were registered with the UNHCR (USCRI 2009). In 2008, there were reports of refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR being detained and then released following intervention from UNHCR. Unregistered refugees were also detained, many of whom requested UNHCR registration while in detention (USCRI 2009).


Most asylum seekers originate from African countries, including Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNHCR 2010). One observer estimates there are approximately 70,000 Palestinians in Egypt, many of whom are stateless persons detained in Egyptian prisons and not registered with UNHCR, and thus not included in statistics. UNHCR reported only 74 non-Palestinian stateless persons living in Egypt in 2007 (ERT 2010, p.145).