Asylum Seekers, Legal Residents Taken from Checkpoints
(New York) – Egyptian authorities should stop arbitrarily detaining Syrians and threatening to summarily deport them. The authorities should release the Syrian detainees unless they are promptly charged with a valid offense, and not deport Syrians with visas or asylum seekers without their claims being impartially reviewed.
On July 19 and 20, 2013, Egyptian police and military police arrested at least 72 Syrian men and nine boys at checkpoints on main roads in Cairo. Those who remain in custody, including registered asylum seekers and at least nine Syrians with valid visas or residence permits, have apparently not been charged with any offense. The authorities have threatened to deport at least 14 of them to countries neighboring Syria, Human Rights Watch said.
“There is growing hostility in Egypt to the Syrians who fled there seeking refuge from the war,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But a tense political climate is no excuse for police and army officers to pull dozens of Syrian men and boys off of public transport and throw them in jail without regard for their rights.”
Human Rights Watch is concerned that Syrian asylum seekers may be deported without a fair examination of their asylum claims, as required by international law. On June 24 a family member of one of those detained told Human Rights Watch that deportation proceedings had been initiated against seven of the adult Syrian detainees and that their removal from Egypt was imminent. Lawyers who reviewed the case files of seven detained children said they also were at risk of immediate deportation.
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, in Egypt has registered, or is in the process of registering, some 90,000 asylum seekers from Syria. The Egyptian authorities should at a minimum provide lawyers and UNHCR staff immediate access to all Syrians in detention to ensure that there are no registered asylum seekers among them, Human Rights Watch said.
Since the Egyptian military removed Mohammed Morsy from power on July 3, regulations governing Syrians’ entrance to Egypt have changed. Since July 8, Syrians have been required to obtain entry visas and security clearance before they arrive in Egypt, a hardship for those fleeing fighting. Arrests of Syrians living in Egypt have increased to levels that activists working with Syrian refugees in Cairo told Human Rights Watch were unprecedented.
On July 10, Egyptian television presenters on local channels including Faraeen and OnTV began accusing the Syrian community of siding with Morsy supporters, fueling an atmosphere of mistrust and xenophobia. One popular presenter, Tawfiq Okasha, gave Syrians living in Egypt a 48-hour warning, telling them that the Egyptian people knew where they lived and that if Syrians did not stop “supporting the Muslim Brotherhood” after 48 hours, the Egyptians would destroy their homes.
Police and military police arrested most Syrians being held by removing them from buses and microbuses at checkpoints on Cairo roads. For example, police and military checkpoints appeared in Obour City, a development on the outskirts of Cairo with a large Syrian community, at the time of Morsy’s overthrow, community members told Human Rights Watch. Starting on July 19, security officers began arresting Syrians on microbuses and public transport and detaining them at the checkpoints. One man who was detained but released, as well as relatives who went to the checkpoint to bring passports to people who had been arrested, told Human Rights Watch that security forces stopped vehicles, then asked all Syrians to disembark and provide identification documents and passports. No reason was given for their search or detention.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on July 19 they saw military police holding 50 to 60 Syrians and three Bangladeshi men at a military police checkpoint on the Cairo-Ismailiya Desert Road. Those detained that night at the checkpoint included two boys, ages 14 and 16. The military police ordered the men and boys to board buses at the checkpoint, which then drove them to unknown locations.
Relatives and lawyers provided information to Human Rights Watch about the detention of approximately 40 Syrians apprehended at checkpoints and held in Qanater Prison on the outskirts of Cairo, as well as 7 boys in al-Marg juvenile detention facility in Cairo. Local activists who reached the detainees by telephone gave Human Rights Watch the names of another 34 men and boys detained on July 20 and held in Shurouq police station, in a northern Cairo neighborhood. Five of those men were released on July 21, according to a local activist, but the rest remained in custody.
Families of 16 detainees told Human Rights Watch that neither they nor their relatives’ lawyers were able to visit the detainees during their first three to four days of custody. Two of the detained boys called their uncle at about 2:30 p.m. on July 21 and told him they had been separated from the other members of the family with whom they had been travelling. They said that Egyptian National Security was holding them, and that officials had told them they would be deported. They said that they had been blindfolded and handcuffed, and been given inadequate food.
The two boys have not been held in accordance with international standards for the treatment of children, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Their families told Human Rights Watch that they had had no contact whatsoever with their sons for the first 40 hours of their detention, and they had no way to call or meet with them for several days. No charges are known to have been filed against the boys.
“Syrian children in particular have already faced enormous trauma at home, so separating them from their families and throwing them in jail in Egypt is unconscionable,” Houry said. “The Egyptian authorities need to treat all Syrians in accordance with the law and to inform their families of their whereabouts and status.”
All seven members of the group threatened with deportation had valid immigration documents and four are registered as asylum seekers with UNHCR, according to the relative who told Human Rights Watch about the situation. Lawyers representing seven detained children said that the children’s case files referred to deportation orders and that they were also at risk of imminent deportation. Children, regardless of their immigration status, should be afforded special protection and should not be deported and separated from their families, Human Rights Watch said.
Under international refugee and human rights law, the Egyptian government may not send anyone to a place where their life or freedom is threatened, or where they risk torture or inhuman or degrading treatment. Before deporting anyone to Syria, Egyptian authorities should ensure that all asylum seekers from Syria have access to UNHCR, which under a 1954 agreement with Egypt conducts refugee status determination procedures in the country.
“The Egyptian authorities should uphold their obligations to Syrian asylum seekers under international law,” Houry said. “That starts with ensuring that the security services immediately end their campaign of picking up Syrians on the streets and threatening them with summary deportation.”