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17 November 2022 – Egypt

Dozens of the South Sudanese nationals repatriated from Egypt arrived in Juba on Friday. | Photo: Michael Daniel/Eye Radio.
Dozens of the South Sudanese nationals repatriated from Egypt arrived in Juba on Friday. | Photo: Michael Daniel/Eye Radio.

While Egypt has been courting world leaders in Sharm el Sheikh as the host for COP27, it has continued to arbitrarily and indefinitely detain thousands of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Many are also being forcibly deported to countries where they may face persecution or torture.

Egypt has a track record of detaining non-nationals for months or even years. As one anonymous civil society advocate told the GDP, “I’ve heard of people being detained for eight years. There are children who are still detained, having been born in detention.” Held in police stations and prisons which are ill-equipped for long-term detention, they face cramped cells, zero access to the outdoors, limited food, and frequent violence. Numbers in detention are also on the rise: according to a GDP source, as of 23 October 3,256 people had been detained so far this year–compared to a total of some 2,900 in 2021.

Until recently, large numbers of immigration detainees were held in facilities on Egypt’s north coast, having been apprehended while attempting to reach Europe. However, since the Sisi regime closed maritime borders in the wake of the devastating 2016 Rashid shipwreck–in which more than 200 people drowned–it has continued to expand “migration management” cooperation with the EU and its detention geography has shifted.

Today, increasing numbers are being detained in the south of the country having been apprehended following irregular entry across the southern border. According to GDP sources, the majority of these detainees have been denied access to UNHCR, and thus the opportunity of applying for asylum. As the GDP highlighted in its 2018 Egypt Profile, unlike facilities on the north coast–where UNHCR and its implementing partners have been permitted to provide supplies and services–those in the south are far less accessible for external organisations. Detainees thus face particularly acute challenges, including a lack of daily food provision, lack of clothing, and lack of medical assistance. Many police stations lack beds and furniture, and most have no private hygiene facilities.

In one incident reported on the Refugees Platform in Egypt, a mute, pregnant woman was detained in Aswan right up until the birth of her child. Following the birth, the woman was told that the newborn needed additional care, and was transferred to the neonatal ward, while she was immediately returned to the detention facility. Two days later, she was informed that her baby had died. When officers asked her to identify the newborn she couldn’t, as the baby had been removed from her immediately after the birth.

Since October 2021, Egyptian authorities have also stepped up deportations–principally of Eritreans and South Sudanese. These have continued despite growing criticism from UN human rights experts like the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea condemning the expulsions.

Although the Egyptian government does not publicly release data regarding arrests, detentions, and deportations of non-nationals, according to observers on the ground, at least 90 Eritreans were forcibly deported to Asmara between October 2021 and 8 November 2022. This figure, however, likely under-represents the real situation, given that these deportations operate with no public oversight. As journalist Philip Sofian Naceur described it, “Egypt is a downright black box regarding deportations. Official statistics do not exist, and neither civil society nor the media are able to grasp official practices in their entirety, given the sensitivity of the issue and the lack of transparency by the Ministry of Interior and the army.” Most recently, a flight on 8 November removed nine Eritreans, amongst them two unaccompanied children. According to testimonies from deportees’ relatives, some of those who have been deported were immediately sent into compulsory military service, some fled again (into Sudan), and some disappeared entirely.

At least 80 South Sudanese have also been deported since May 2022–with some of these deportations reportedly paid for by South Sudan’s First Lady ​​Mary Ayen Mayardit. Amongst deportees have been several students, arrested while protesting against deteriorating living conditions at their university. Describing the conditions of his detention, one student alleged that he was detained in a cell where he was unable to sit down or sleep for 21 days, causing his legs to swell up. His phone and 125 USD cash were also stolen from him. Some of the students to have been deported were reportedly handed over immediately to the South Sudan National Police Service for further investigation.

Despite ongoing rights violations against non-nationals in Egypt, on 30 October Egypt and the EU signed an agreement to launch the first phase of an 80 million EUR border management programme. The funding–the latest in a series of “migration management” cooperation agreements–will be used to purchase surveillance equipment, thermal cameras, a satellite positioning system, and search and rescue vessels.