On 10 September, reports from human rights groups and independent journalists began circulating about Egypt’s efforts to remove two asylum seekers who had been detained for several years but who had purportedly been cleared for deporation back to Eritrea–in violation of Egypt’s international treaty obligations–where they would likely face torture and possibly execution. According to sources in Egypt, as of 15 September the two asylum seekers, Alem Tesfay Abraham and Kibrom Adhanom, had yet to be deported and remained in detention in Egypt’s Qanater Prison. One source told the Global Detention Project that various foreign missions, UN agencies, and others have engaged Egypt about the situation. The source said that the Egyptian government may have “realized that deportation would result in serious backlash,” resulting in a quasi “stalemate” in the situation.
According to a report from the group Human Rights Concern Eritrea, on 9 September the two asylum seekers “were taken to an immigration office, beaten, and forced to sign documents in Arabic, a language which neither read or understand. … It appears, however, that they may have been forced to declare in writing that they were not subjected to ill-treatment throughout their time in detention. …. It is now clear that the Egyptian authorities have managed to obtain travel documents from the Eritrean Embassy in Cairo. They have also completed COVID-19 Tests for the two detainees, and plan to forcibly return them to Eritrea over the weekend of 11th-12th September, where they face grave risk of imprisonment, torture, abuse and indefinite period of slavery, and a substantial risk of execution. This proposed refoulement of refugees to the country they have fled from in fear is in flagrant breach of Egypt’s legal obligations under several UN treaties.”
The plight of detained migrants and asylum seekers in Egypt has long drawn criticism because of the country’s practice of detaining these people in prisons and police stations, often in terrible conditions and alongside people charged with violent crimes. There have also been reports of important outbreaks of COVID-19 in these detention facilities and several deaths, including at Qanater Prison where Alem Tesfay Abraham and Kibrom Adhanom are reportedly detained. Egypt, however, has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the existence of outbreaks.
Among the groups raising awareness of the plight of the two Eritrean asylum seekers is Amnesty International, which says that Eritrean asylum seekers who are forcibly returned to their country risk arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, torture, and execution. The organisation has called on Egypt to release Alem Tesfay Abraham and Kibrom Adhanom and provide them access to asylum procedures.
According to UNHCR, in March 2020, there were 258,433 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt. Syrian refugees comprise around half of the refugee and asylum seeker population (around 130,000). The COVID-19 pandemic had a heavy impact upon refugees and asylum-seekers in the country as many were living in overcrowded accommodations with inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene. Many have lost their jobs and sources of income. UNHCR reported that before the COVID-19 outbreak, seven out of ten refugees in the country were unable to meet their basic needs and that since the outbreak, many have found it even harder to purchase food or pay rent. UNHCR has been providing assistance to refugees and asylum seekers in the country including through the disbursement of cash for hygiene which has been extended to 51,505 refugees and asylum seekers at heightened risk since April 2020. As of 14 September 2021, Egypt had recorded 293,448 COVID-19 cases and 16,885 related deaths.
While Egypt detains migrants, asylum seekers and refugees for migration-related reasons, the country does not have dedicated immigration detention centres. Instead, prisons and police stations are used to hold foreigners awaiting deportation. The GDP has been unable to obtain any reports indicating that authorities have taken measures to assist migrants and asylum seekers in detention. On the other hand, Middle East Monitor reported that COVID-19 cases were detected within the Al-Qanater prison in 2020 and three detainees died from the virus in February 2021 at different police stations.
Egypt has also suspended its application procedures for residence permits for refugees and asylum seekers. Those with expired UNHCR documents were impacted by the suspension of registration activities. In order to alleviate overcrowding and avoid the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, the government pardoned around 460 prisoners in April 2020 (see 7 May 2020 Egypt update on this platform). It is unclear whether detainees held for migration-related matters have also been released.
The Egyptian government began its national vaccination campaign in March 2021 and according to the UNHCR, has offered “refugees and asylum-seekers medical treatment on equal footing as Egyptians and has included them in the national vaccination plan.”
- Global Detention Project, Qanater Prison, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/africa/egypt/detention-centres/1140/qanater-el-khayereya-mens-prison
- Amnesty International Africa, 10 September 2021, Twitter, 10 September 2021, https://twitter.com/AmnestyEARO/status/1436265126945075221
- Sofian Philip Naceur, 10 September 201321, Twitter, https://twitter.com/SofianNaceur/status/1436239196860166147
- “A woman measuring the body temperature of a man after having entered through the gate into al-Qanater prison on 27 December, 2020 [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]” Middle East Monitor, “Egypt denies allegations of covid outbreak in prisons,” 6 January 2021, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20210106-egypt-denies-allegations-of-covid-outbreak-in-prisons/
- Human Rights Concern Eritrea, “Egypt Takes Disturbing Steps to Forcibly Return Two Eritrean Detainees into Mortal Danger in Eritrea,” 10 September 2021, https://hrc-eritrea.org/egypt-takes-disturbing-steps-to-forcibly-return-two-eritrean-detainees-into-mortal-danger-in-eritrea/
- Hadeer El-Mahdawy, “After over 7 years’ detention in Egypt, 2 Eritrean migrants face deportation,” Madam Masr, 12 September 2021, http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:T-sICUPDXV0J:https://www.madamasr.com/en/2021/09/12/news/u/after-over-7-years-detention-in-egypt-2-eritrean-migrants-face-deportation/&hl=en&gl=eg&strip=1&vwsrc=0
- Middle East Monitor, “Egypt: 3 Detainees Die from Coronavirus in 24 Hours,” 4 February 2021, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20210204-egypt-3-detainees-die-from-coronavirus-in-24-hours/
- Worldometer, “Egypt: Coronavirus Cases,” accessed on 14 September 2021, https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/egypt/
- The New Arab, “Egypt Pardons Hundreds of Prisoners, Without Mention of COVID-19,” 17 April 2020, https://english.alaraby.co.uk/news/egypt-pardons-hundreds-prisoners-without-mention-covid-19
- UNHCR, “UNHCR Egypt Supports Egypt’s Ministry of Health’s National COVID-19 Response,” 11 March 2021, https://reliefweb.int/report/egypt/unhcr-egypt-supports-egypts-ministry-health-s-national-covid-19-response
- UNHCR, “Egypt – 3RP Responses Related to COVID-19,” 14 July 2021, https://reliefweb.int/report/egypt/egypt-3rp-response-related-covid-19
- Y. El-Demerdash, “COVID-19 Takes Heavy Toll on Refugees in Egypt,” UNHCR, 23 November 2020, https://www.unhcr.org/eg/16453-covid-19-takes-heavy-toll-on-refugees-in-egypt.html
- UNHCR, “Egypt UNHCR Operational Update, April – June 2020,” 28 September 2020, https://reliefweb.int/report/egypt/egypt-unhcr-operational-update-april-june-2020