Migration policy in Egypt: Racism, Violence, Despotism

The EU wants to outsource the sealing of national borders to Egypt, and Cairo presents itself as an accessory in carrying out the task. The condition of refugees in Egypt is catastrophic.

In Rosetta, Egypt, people wait for news from relatives, who are thought to have been on a sunken boat

Under the terms of §29a Section 2 of asylum law, Egypt cannot be classified as a safe country of origin, declared Germany's ministry of foreign affairs in November 2016 in response to an inquiry by the Green Party. The federal government was said to be “concerned“ about the state of human rights in Egypt. There were “credible reports of torture and abuse under police custody“. The conditions in Egyptian jails were said to be particularly alarming, “pertaining equally to detained migrants and to other incarcerated persons.“

Egypt consistently violates the commitments of the Geneva Convention on Refugees, which the country had ratified. While the right of asylum is verified within the constitution, no procedures for recognition of asylum are in effect. That's why the most crucial points of contact for refugees in the country are aid organisations, rather than Egyptian authorities.

But aid organisations have only limited capacities. Racist insults and bodily attacks in public are normal occurrences for refugees in Egypt. Rapes are said to be common as well.

Refugees usually live in precarious circumstances. The Egyptian state leaves them to fend for themselves. No work permits are issued, not even when a residence permit has been granted. Aid organisations are their only source of support.

In September 2016, UNHCR had registered a total of 190,486 refugees, 117,350 of them from Syria. Estimates of the total number of refugees and migrants living in the country range between 500,000 and two million people.

Arbitrary deportations

Support through organisations in the form of health or educational services is bound to UNHCR registration with the UN. However, UNHCR is chronically understaffed. The waiting period for registration can last over a year. In March 2016, refugees protested against the long waiting times and the sinking quota of approval. Two women set fire to themselves.

Even registration with UNHCR offers no safe haven. Although the “yellow card“ should serve to guard against deportation, Egyptian authorities still act licentiously – between January and August 2016 they deported 1,100 people, mostly to Sudan. Deportations to Eritrea and Ethiopia are carried out as well; even Syrian refugees have been deported, despite having yellow cards. As to the overall number of deportations it has executed, the government says nothing.

UNHCR figures indicate that, at present, 4,106 refugees and migrants are imprisoned, an 84 percent increase over last year. In the coastal provinces of Egypt alone, 32 detention centres are being used to hold refugees and migrants, according to Al-Kashef. In 2013, these centres numbered only eight. Supposedly, in most cases, the centres in question are not serving as prisons per se, but extending the capacities of police stations with only limited accommodations. While the cell tracts of three police stations in the coastal province of Kafr Al-Sheikh were indeed recently expanded, Egypt's government has had 19 completely new prisons built since 2011 – 13 of those since 2013 alone. However, in light of the authorities' fury of arrests of political dissidents, the country's jails are just as massively overloaded as before.

Conditions in prison are correspondingly tense. A worker at an aid organisation, who declined to give his name, described overcrowded cells, with up to 60 people jammed into 25 cubic meters of space. Due to the poor air circulation, respiratory illnesses and scabies are common. He also told of suicide attempts.

Decrease in public violence

Yet no medical treatment or care exists. Imprisoned refugees are thrown onto the support of aid organisations and UNHCR, which officially may be permitted access to detention centres; yet, here as well, they are often denied entry at the authorities‘ arbitrary discretion.

Meanwhile, public violence by Egyptian security forces against refugees seems to have decreased. Between 2007 and 2011, according to statements by human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, 107 people were shot by Egyptian border soldiers during attempts to cross the Egyptian-Israeli border at the Sinai. Since the construction of the Israeli separation wall at the Egyptian border, the route to Israel is blocked and is hardly ever used today. In the Mediterranean Sea, as well, there were incidents in which the coast guard apparently opened fire on refugee boats. Currently, Egyptian officials focus on dealing less violently with refugees, since President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi's administration wants to present itself as a reliable partner in migration politics –thus it exploits refugees living within its borders for political ends.

Back in 2014, Al-Sisi repeatedly painted a picture of a country filled to overflowing with refugees. His government is relying on Europe's criticism of the human rights situation in Egypt, which is regarded in Cairo as meddling in internal affairs, to fall silent once the country has adequate leverage at its disposal. The country is thus all the more eager to intensify its co-operation on migration policy with the EU. Egypt and the EU have actually been collaborating in this area since 2004. Back then, in the context of the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement, Egypt and the EU made a co-operation treaty to prevent and control illegal migration. The agreement included a mutual re-acceptance of expelled citizens. The EU member states and Egypt stated their willingness to provide their citizens with the necessary identification papers.

Italian partners in deportations

Since that time, deportations of Egyptian nationals from the EU have been clearly been carried out satisfactorily for the majority of the EU states. Belgium and Germany, in response to an inquiry from the European Migration Network (EMN) in 2010, reported problems in deporting persons without valid identification papers, but most other EU states at the time noted that repatriations to the north African nation generally ran smoothly.

Italy declared itself particularly pleased. As stated in its EMN reports, co-operation with Egyptian authorities was running according to plan and could be confirmed by continual deportations. Back in 2007, Italy alone of the EU nations had reached an accord with Egypt on the bilateral readmission of expelled persons and has been making regular use of the treaty since it took effect in 2008. In 2011, then-presiding Minister of the Interior Roberto Maroni said in Rome, “The bilateral agreement with Egypt is functioning perfectly. Egyptian citizens arrive here, are promptly recognised by consular authorities and deported the very next day.“ The British NGO Statewatch, however, points out that the European Court of Human Rights has found Italy guilty of violating the ban on collective expulsions upheld in the EU Convention on Human Rights.

In 2006, in the context of the Euro-Mediterranean Agreement, the EU and Egypt formed an affiliation council within the European Neighbourhood Policy. Its plan for “Migration and Mobility“ arranged for EU authorities to upgrade Egyptian institutions for purposes of border control – explicitly including providing training sessions. Involving the EU border protection agency FRONTEX was also recommended.

Arms and training

The UK and France co-operate with Egypt primarily at a military level, Germany and Italy at a police level. France has supplied materials increasingly since 2014, including a Mistral helicopter and the first three of 24 ordered Rafale fighter jets. In March 2016, France conducted a military manoeuvre with Egypt's navy. Great Britain conducted training procedures for 80 Egyptian soldiers in 2015 and 2016.

Italy focuses on police collaborations and, in the year 2000, signed a police agreement that took effect in 2002 and led to training programmes for Egyptian security forces in 2004. The Italian firm Iveco supplied the Egyptian police force with personnel transporters, sending munitions and firearms as well. Additionally, in 2007 the Italian government delivered two patrol boats to the Egyptian coast guard.

Terrorism, a loaded term

In June 2016, after roughly two years of negotiations, German Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière and his Egyptian official counterpart Magdy Abdel Ghaffar finally signed a security agreement. It involves combatting organised crime, terrorism and disaster prevention. In 2015, the German federal police, as well as the intelligence services GIS and NSS, had already begun training measures for the Egyptian border police through the Federal Criminal Police Office.

Collaboration with dictators

In the meantime, EU efforts to intensify their migration policy co-operation with Egypt are falling on fertile soil. President Al-Sisi wants to present his country as a dependable partner for the EU. Since 2014, the Egyptian coast guard, army and police have tightened controls over the harbours and along the coast. They come down harder on human traffickers. In October, the Egyptian parliament substantially increased the penalties for people smugglers.

The new law was drafted by the authority NCCPIM, which was created in 2014 as part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Using PR campaigns, this office educates Egypt's young people, who are increasingly eager to migrate, on the dangers of departing the country illegally; it also collects data and provides further education to Egyptian officials in matters of refugee law and documentation review. One especially prominent offer so far was a workshop for government workers from eight African states on the topic of illegal migrations and human trafficking, which, according to the NCCPIM, was attended by officials from the military dictatorship of Eritrea, as well as from Ethiopia and South Sudan.

The NCCPIM is the main partner for the EU in Egypt – and is funded by Brussels accordingly. The money comes from the pot of ERMC (Enhancing the Response to Migration Challenges in Egypt), which is stocked with € 11.5 million. € 1.5 million flows to various governmental institutions, including the NCCPIM. The rest goes to development aid projects which are supposed to improve conditions in Egypt for migrants, returnees, asylum seekers and refugees. Signing off on these funds were the Federal Republic's own German Corporation for International Cooperation (GiZ) and the Italian Development Co-operation Agency.

In light of these developments since 2004, it would be misleading to speak of a new refugee agreement. For co-operation is already briskly taking place; collaboration is now simply being intensified. In the meantime, it has mutated to become the driving force in European-Egyptian relations.

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