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Egypt begins mass deportation of Eritrean refugees, undermining one of UNHCR’s oldest RSD operations

June 13, 2008
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Egypt began deporting hundreds of Eritrean refugees and asylum-seekers on 11 June, forcing them on to airplanes to Eritrea while denying them access to UNHCR. Amnesty International called the deportations “flights to torture.”

The mass deportations attracted international media attention after being reported by Amnesty International on 12 June. Amnesty said that the deportees were at risk of  torture and arbitrary detention in Eritrea for being members in prohibited religious faiths or avoiding military conscription, and that they had pleaded with Egyptian officers not to send them home.

Before being deported, one of the Eritreans who had a mobile phone inside Egyptian detention centers said that Egyptian guards used “sticks and guns” to force them to sign travel documents.

UNHCR had been in protracted talks with Egyptian officials to secure access to around 1600  detainees. By the afternoon of 13 June, Amnesty, Reuters and the Associated Press had all separately confirmed that several hundred had been deported and that other deportations were in the works. But UNHCR officials continued to tell journalists that they did not know if the deportations had occurred  and did not publicly condemn the government’s actions.

Refugee law prohibits deporting asylum-seekers without giving them access to fair refugee status determination, and UNHCR generally opposes returning asylum-seekers to Eritrea. UNHCR’s office in Cairo has rejected a number of Eritrean asylum-seekers in recent years, questioning whether they were being sincere in their asserted religious faith and whether they were really in danger in Eritrea. But UNHCR-Cairo has also generally recognized applications by Eritreans arriving from Sudan who left Eritrea illegally.

Egypt has been one of UNHCR’s largest RSD operations in the world for the past ten years. UNHCR’s work in the country dates to a 1954 Memorandum of Understanding with the Egyptian Government. Until 2007, Egypt had a fairly consistent record of avoiding deportation of refugees and asylum-seekers who were under UNHCR protection, and also usually granted UNHCR access to asylum-seekers in detention. Although Egypt restricted refugees’ social and economic rights, registration and refugee status recognition by UNHCR did facilitate reliable protection from deportation.

This has now changed.

In August 2007 Israel returned 48 African refugees, asylum-seekers and other migrants to Egypt, and their whereabouts have been unknown since. Media reports indicate than as many as 20 may have been deported to Sudan. In May Human Rights Watch reported that at least 11 more registered Sudanese asylum-seekers had been deported.

The mass Eritrean deportation suggests that the foundation of UNHCR’s refugee status determination operation in the most populous Arab state may now be in question. If UNHCR recognition and diplomatic interventions no longer effectively restrain Egyptian Government actions toward refugees, UNHCR’s longstanding registration and refugee status determination operation in Egypt may cease to deliver even minimal protection to refugees.

Given the Egyptian deportation campaign and UNHCR’s general policy against the return of rejected Eritrean asylum-seekers, questions may also now arise about those Eritreans who have been refused protection by UNHCR-Cairo in recent years. UNHCR has the option of re-opening their files, or granting prima facie recognition to all Eritreans in Egypt.

The deterioration of Egypt’s already minimal level of refugee protection may also draw attention again to UNHCR’s reduction in resettlement referrals from Egypt over the last five years. Previously UNHCR referred nearly all recognized refugees in Egypt for third country resettlement because they could not locally integrate in Egypt or return home. But UNHCR today refers only around 550 especially vulnerable refugees for resettlement per year, out of an official refugee population of approximately 43,000.

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