Egypt not a refugee heaven

Elizabeth Hagen, Monday 20 Jun 2011

On World Refugee Day, Egypt's growing refugee and asylum-seeking population comes into sharp focus as the region's shifting political landscape exacerbates humanitarian difficulties on the ground

Bangladeshi migrant workers, some of them stranded for more than a week, in the arrival hall of Egypt's Sallum border post. (Photo from UNHCR

Today, 20 June, marks the 10th observation of World Refugee Day. The formal UN General Assembly celebration was created to promote awareness for the millions of refugee populations around the globe. 

In May, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNhCR) anticipated a total of 41,344 refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt by the end of 2011.

According to Refugees International (RI), more than 200,000 refugees have fled to Egypt since protests began in Libya. Furthermore, an estimated 1,700 refugees, mostly migrants, are being airlifted each day from both Egypt and Tunisia to their home countries, a rate much lower than when the conflict first began and international funding was pouring in.

While RI commended Egypt’s role in facilitating humanitarian aid into Libya, the organisation characterised the shelter situation at the Saloum border site as “simply inadequate.”

Nearly five in every six refugees there sleep in the open.

In addition to preventing UNHCR from providing any significant assistance, the Egyptian government has been unwilling to build permanent structures or even set up tents in Saloum.

An RI report compiled in mid-April said UN agencies have appealed to authorities to construct shelters themselves, “but Egyptian officials have refused the tents due to unfounded concerns that allowing any form of shelter could increase the so-called ‘pull factor’ to Saloum or be interpreted as a sign of permission to lengthen the stays of those already present.”

International refugee law defines a refugee as “a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution if returned to his or her country of origin.”

Egypt has a track record of disinterest in the fates of African refugees it forcibly returns. If refugees are found to have travelled to Israel, they are frequently denied access to UNHCR services in Egypt and sent home where they are likely to face torture and imprisonment.

Late 2005 was the last time Sudanese and other longer-term refugees banded together to protest in any great number. An estimated group of 2,000 mostly Sudanese migrants – over half of the assembled protesters – were arrested after a three-month sit-in outside the UNHCR building in Cairo. Very few were seen joining protests during the January 25 Revolution. 

The 2009 World Refugee Survey by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants reported the fatal shootings by Egyptian border guards of 33 African migrants crossing through Sinai into Israel. A 2008 Human Rights Watch report called for the end of what became known as Egypt’s ‘shoot-to-stop’ policy.

A January report from the UNHCR documents ‘systematic torture’ of mainly Eritrean asylum seekers on their way through Sinai. Beatings, sexual assault and rape have caught the attention of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel).

In their statement this December, a growing trend of women being raped on their way into Israel was noted: “Of a total of 165 abortions facilitated by the clinic between January and November 2010, PHR-Israel suspects half were requested by women who were sexually assaulted in the Sinai.”

Over a thousand asylum-seeking women were referred for gynaecological treatment after experiencing trauma in Sinai in the same period. Egypt’s foreign minister denied these reports of abuse.

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