Egypt: Deadly journey through the desert

“Here it is like war for us and back home it is war also, there is no difference.”

“We fled from death but death is after us; we don’t know what is happening to our relatives back home in camps for the displaced. Staying there would have been better than what happened to us”

A Sudanese refugee from the Darfur region who attempted to cross the border of Egypt with Israel and served a one year prison sentence in Egypt

Since mid-2007, hundreds of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants most of them from countries in sub-Saharan Africa have risked their lives trying to cross the Egyptian border into Israel.

The Egyptian border guards usually fire warning shots into the air and order them to stop. Those who do not comply often end up paying with their lives.

Before this week, 25 people have been shot and killed – 19 men, five women and a seven-year-old girl – trying to cross the Egyptian border into Israel since mid-2007. Amnesty International has learnt the identity of five of those shot dead: Haroun Mohamed Yehya Haroun (Sudanese, aged 24); Mervat Mer Hatover (Eritrean, aged 37); Ermeniry Khasheef (Sudanese, aged 50); Adam Mohammed Othman (Sudanese, aged 23); and Hajja Abbas Haroun (Sudanese, aged 28) who was seven months pregnant at the time of her death. Last Monday night, Egyptian border guards are reported to have killed a twenty-sixth person, a Sudanese refugee who was trying to cross the border near Rafah.

In a briefing published today and entitled Egypt: Deadly Journeys Through the Desert, Amnesty International fully acknowledges the duty and responsibility of the Egyptian government to regulate the entry, exit and residence of foreign nationals in its territory, and recognises that law enforcement officers responsible for border control may themselves sometimes be faced with violence. However, in undertaking its border control and other operations related to the movement or residence of foreign nationals, the Egyptian authorities must respect human rights, including every person’s right to life, and abide fully by international human rights law and standards

“The Egyptian authorities’ shameful treatment of Sub-Saharan African migrants and vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees blatantly disregards international law. We are calling for urgent intervention by President Mubarak to end these abuses” said Amnesty International.

Amnesty International added that international standards require that security forces use firearms only in strictly limited circumstances: if lives are in danger and when there are no other means to respond to that danger.

The information collected by the organization highlighted that there is no indication that refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants seeking to leave Egypt and cross into Israel used force or posed any threat to the Egyptian border guards who fired at them.

In spite of the fact that 25 people have been killed in 16 incidents, Amnesty International is unaware of any official investigations carried out by the Egyptian authorities into these killings and the use of lethal force by Egyptian border guards.

Instead of instructing the border guards not to use excessive force, the Egyptian authorities have arrested on charges of “attempting to exit unlawfully the Egyptian eastern border” and tried more than 1,300 sub-Saharan refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants before military courts which flout international standards for fair trial.

Other refugees, asylum seekers and migrants have been forcibly returned to possible torture. In August 2007, 48 people who had managed to cross the border were forcibly returned to Egypt by the Israeli authorities; according to reports, around 20 of them were then forcibly returned from Egypt to Sudan without having been given access to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office to assess their asylum claims. The fate of the others remains unknown.

In June 2008, up to 1,200 Eritrean nationals were forcibly returned from Egypt to their country in disregard of international standards, where they face the risk of torture and other serious human rights violations. This was done disregarding UNHCR guidelines calling on all governments not to forcibly return refugees and asylum-seekers, including rejected asylum-seekers, to Eritrea.

In a memorandum addressed to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Amnesty international is calling on the Egyptian authorities to:

Urgently ensure that the Egyptian security forces use force only in strict accordance with relevant international human rights standards;

Ensure that all members of the Egyptian security forces are given adequate human rights training;

Investigate, promptly, thoroughly and impartially, all cases in which Egyptian border guards or other security forces have opened fire on people seeking to cross Egypt’s borders with Israel or other countries;

Ensure that migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers are not detained for migration control purposes and stop trying civilians in military courts.

Cease all forcible returns of people to all countries where they face human rights violations in line with Egypt’s obligations under international human rights and refugee law, in particular, cease all forcible returns of Eritreans in line with UNHCR guidelines.