Eritrean asylum-seekers face deportation from Egypt

A group of up to 104 Eritrean asylum-seekers held in a detention facility in Sinai in Egypt are at risk of imminent deportation to Eritrea. If returned, they are likely to be held incommunicado in inhumane conditions for long periods of time.

The group is believed to comprise 78 men, 23 women, including one pregnant woman, and three children. The detention centre in Nakhl, northern Sinai, was visited a few days ago by officials from the Eritrean Embassy in Egypt to arrange for their deportation .

There are reports that a number of these asylum-seekers had been retuned from Israel in the last five months. They had crossed from Egypt into Israel and were quickly deported back to Egypt by the Israeli army without being given access to due process in order to have their cases examined.

In Egypt, none of the asylum-seekers has been allowed access to representatives from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cairo, for assessment of their claims for asylum. The members of the group were required to fill in forms and have their photographs taken in preparation for deportation.

Between 12 and 19 June, up to 1,200 Eritrean asylum-seekers were forcibly returned from Egypt to Eritrea. The majority of the asylum-seekers returned were transferred to the remote Wia prison and other military facilities, where they are still being held, while some were released after weeks in detention, including pregnant women and women with children. Prisoners in Eritrea are commonly held in damp, over-crowded and unhygienic conditions, with almost no access to medical care.

Any member of the current group, if forcibly returned, could also face torture or other ill-treatment, particularly as many of them are believed to have left Eritrea to avoid forced conscription. The standard punishment for those evading or escaping military service in Eritrea is detention without trial and torture or other ill-treatment by beatings and being tied in painful positions.

Dozens of other Eritrean asylum-seekers are also believed to be facing deportation from Egypt, including Eritreans held in Al-Arish prison, north Sinai, and in Al-Qanater prison, north of Cairo. An unknown number of Eritreans are currently detained in different locations in Egypt. None of them are allowed access to UNHCR representatives.

According to the agreement between Egypt and UNCHR, the Egyptian authorities have the obligation to allow asylum-seekers to meet with UNHCR representatives and to respect their assessments of refugee status. UNHCR has issued guidelines to all governments opposing the return of rejected Eritrean asylum-seekers to Eritrea on the grounds of the record of incommunicado detention, torture and other ill-treatment in Eritrea.

Since mid-2007, hundreds of Eritreans, Sudanese and nationals of other Sub-Saharan countries have been trying to cross the Egyptian border into Israel. At least 28 were shot dead by security forces at the border in 2008.

Hundreds were referred to military court for attempting to “illegally” cross the Egyptian eastern border and were sentenced to one year prison terms and fines. Deportation arrangements are typically initiated after such individuals serve their sentences, which include contacting the official representatives of their country of origin in Egypt to issue them with travel documents.