During the raids, which took place on January 28 and 29, plainclothes policemen and security forces entered homes without showing either identification or warrants, and arrested foreigners, predominantly people of sub-Saharan African origin. Other foreigners were arrested while walking down the street, and were prevented from returning home to collect identity papers. Still others were beaten during the arrests and sustained injuries as a result.
Individuals carrying blue identification cards issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were arrested alongside undocumented foreigners. Refugees explained to Human Rights Watch that the police repeatedly told them the UNHCR cards were "useless."
"These are refugees who have permission to be in Egypt, and there's no reason for police to be arresting them," said Alison Parker, refugee protection expert at Human Rights Watch. "And there's no reason for the police to beat people they arrest, under any circumstances."
The raids were also discriminatory. Refugees and asylum-seekers told Human Rights Watch that police wagons and microbuses patrolled the streets of the al-Maadi district of Cairo throughout the day on January 28, looking for "blacks." Witnesses report hearing policemen refer to January 28 as "Black Day." Human Rights Watch also learned that the intake sheet on which police took names at al-Maadi station was headed, in Arabic, "Operation Track Down Blacks."
"The raids in Cairo are doubly reprehensible, for targeting refugees - vulnerable people who should be protected, not punished - and for targeting people solely on the basis of the color of their skin," Parker said.
Detainees were held at al-Maadi and Bassatin police stations in inhumane and crowded conditions. As many as eighty people were crammed in cells measuring three by four meters and were forced to stand overnight. At al-Maadi station, the chief officer on duty refused to accept food for any prisoners.
Early on January 29, UNHCR staff, after arguing with police at al-Maadi station for much of the night, finally secured the release of a few dozen detainees with refugee status. A number of other detainees have since been freed, but an undetermined number may still be held. When a Human Rights Watch representative questioned officials at al-Maadi station as to the number of people remaining in detention, he was given conflicting figures.
Some of those arrested had not yet been recognized as refugees. Such asylum seekers are not given documents, as they are in some other countries, to indicate that they have temporary permission to remain while their cases are considered.
"The process of seeking asylum in Cairo is fraught with delay and procedural deficiencies," Parker said. "UNHCR is overburdened and under-resourced. At the same time, people waiting to have their cases heard should have something to show to police when they are asked for identity documents."
The recent raid is the latest example of human rights violations perpetrated by Egyptian police against refugees and asylum-seekers. Raids also took place on December 2 -3, 2002 and earlier in January, during which people were harassed, beaten, arbitrarily arrested and detained.
The threat of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and racially-based harassment continues to hang over many asylum-seekers and refugees in Egypt. One Nigerian asylum-seeker told Human Rights Watch, "The police and people here do not believe in human rights. And they do not even seem to believe that black people are human."
Human Rights Watch urged the Egyptian government to immediately cease the racial targeting and arbitrary arrests and detention of refugees and asylum seekers, and called on Egyptian law enforcement personnel to respect documents issued by UNHCR.
Human Rights Watch also called on UNHCR to consider issuing temporary "asylum seeker" documents in order to prevent arbitrary arrests of people whose cases are not yet resolved.