Immigration Detention in Egypt: Military Tribunals, Human Rights Abuses, Abysmal Conditions, and EU Partner
• Since July 2013, the jurisdiction of Egypt’s military has further expanded and military officers may arrest non-citizens for immigration reasons, placing them before military tribunals that do not meet international fair trial standards.
• Detention facilities—which include police stations, border guard stations, and prisons—are often overcrowded and lack basic detention conditions.
• There is no maximum length of administrative detention in Egyptian law and the Egyptian government does not release statistics related to the actual or average time-limit for administrative detention.
• Although UNHCR is authorised to conduct Refugee Status Determination based on a 1954 MoU with Egyptian authorities, representatives have often been denied access to detention facilities, as well as to refugees and asylum seekers.
• Despite recommendations from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, children continue to be regularly placed in immigration detention. UNHCR estimates that there are more than 3,800 unaccompanied (or separated) children of concern in the country.
• Despite ongoing human rights abuses in Egypt, the European Union has intensified EU-Egyptian cooperation in “migration management,” leading to a comprehensive crackdown on irregular migration on Egypt’s north coast.
Egypt has long been a destination and transit country for large numbers of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants from across Africa and the Middle East. There are approximately 230,000 refugees and asylum seekers from 58 countries registered with UNHCR in Egypt—including, notably, some 130,000 Syrians, 40,000 Sudanese, 15,000 Ethiopians, and 14,000 Eritreans, and increasing numbers of Yemenis. Observers have also repeatedly highlighted the large numbers of unregistered asylum seekers and migrants (including an enormous population of Sudanese, who are estimated to number anywhere between one and five million). Egypt is also an important country of emigration. According to official statistics, some 9.5 million Egyptian nationals were living abroad as of 2017. Egypt has witnessed consecutive migratory developments on its borders, linking the country to wars, crises, and displacements across the Horn of Africa and the Arab world. Previously, Egypt was a transit point for people attempting to reach Israel via the Sinai Peninsula; these numbers significantly decreased following Israeli government securitisation policies and Egyptian army operations against jihadist groups in North Sinai. Starting in 2013, refugees from Syria pioneered irregular departures from Egypt's north coast. Egypt also remains an important transit country for people trying to reach Libya and beyond.
As the numbers of Syrian refugees attempting to irregularly migrate to Europe via Egypt's north coast began to grow, so did detention rates. In addition, since 2015, intensified Egyptian-EU "migration management" cooperation has lead to a widespread crackdown on irregular migration on Egypt's north coast, as well as around the country generally. During the first 8 months of 2016, Egyptian authorities detained 4,600 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants—a 28 percent increase on the 2015 total.
Egyptian criminal law provides grounds for prosecuting people for status-related violations. Previously, sources in Egypt reported to the Global Detention Project (GDP) that authorities frequently charged people for migration-related infractions. However, more recently observers report that authorities generally avoid criminal prosecution, instead holding migrants in detention through administrative orders from the Department of Passports, Immigration and Nationality. A landmark 2016 counter-smuggling law, which criminalised people smuggling (as opposed to human trafficking) for the first time in Egyptian law, legally defines irregular migrants as "victims." However, it has failed to stop the administrative detention of irregular migrants charged with irregular entry, stay or exit. Rights groups have repeatedly criticised the country for arbitrarily detaining non-citizens and using military tribunals to try them. Refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Egypt are often released after a matter of weeks. Non-registered people of concern are vulnerable to extended periods of administrative detention.
Against the backdrop of the Egyptian government’s harsh crackdowns against civil society as well as ongoing political turmoil in the Middle East, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in Egypt remain subject to numerous abuses and face enormous challenges regarding their futures. For example, there have been reports of Egyptian soldiers firing on smuggling vessels heading for Europe.
Since 2015 in particular, intensified Egyptian-EU "migration management" cooperation has lead to a comprehensive crackdown on irregular migration on Egypt's north coast in particular, as well as around the country more generally.
Human rights defenders and local NGO sources maintain that the northern sea route towards Europe has become a “dead-end,” accompanied by significant increases in arrests, detentions, and deportations.