Egyptian authorities should investigate the forced return to Sudan of at least 11 Sudanese who were officially recognized as refugees and asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said today. The forcible return (refoulement) of people to a country where they have a well-founded fear of persecution constitutes a breach of Egypt’s basic obligation under international refugee law.
Relatives of five of the deportees and three lawyers familiar with their cases told Human Rights Watch that on April 19, 2008 Egyptian authorities deported to southern Sudan approximately 30 Sudanese men and boys. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Egypt had recognized at least 11 of them as refugees or asylum seekers. At least two of the deportees were 17-year-old children. The wife of one deportee told Human Rights Watch that her husband had called her on May 13 and said he and others were being detained in Kobar prison in Juba, in southern Sudan, and could face trial.
“The United Nations refugee agency had identified some of these men and boys as needing protection because they would face serious risks if sent back to Sudan, yet Egypt deported them anyway,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Egyptian authorities need to conduct a credible and transparent investigation to determine whether their forced return amounts to serious abuse and ensure such violations never happen again.”
Cairo police arrested approximately 30 men and boys after Sudanese gangs from the city’s Ma’adi and Ain Shams neighborhoods were accused of damaging cars during a fight on February 8, 2008.
Authorities renewed 15-day detention orders against the group until March 24, when a judge ordered them released on bail. The following day, state security prosecutors appealed the release and charged the men with illegally entering the country, unauthorized public assembly, and threatening public security. The case was transferred to a state security prosecution office, and detention orders were renewed. The men and boys were due to attend another court hearing on May 6. When relatives went to visit them in detention at the Bab el-Khalq appeals prison in Cairo in late April, prison officials told them the group had been deported.
A relative of one of the deportees told Human Rights Watch, “We hadn’t been allowed to visit them in prison, until we were told we could come on Saturday [April 19]. We went at 6 a.m., but the officer said, ‘Why did you come, the Sudanese were deported! State security came at 3 or 4 a.m. and took them to the airport’.”
The wife of another deportee, a recognized refugee who had been teaching English in a Cairo school, said she was told a similar story when she tried to visit her husband in prison on April 26. “A police officer [amin shorta] said, ‘The Sudanese have been deported. They were taken on Saturday to the airport prison, and the next day we heard they arrived in Juba’.”
A lawyer in Cairo who represented some of the detainees provided Human Rights Watch with copies of UNHCR protection documents issued to four of the deportees that recognized them as refugees, and with UNHCR file numbers for five others recognizing them as refugees or asylum seekers. He added that among the deportees was a 17-year-old refugee who had been provisionally approved for resettlement to Canada. Human Rights Watch spoke with family members of three of these deportees and with two others, including the mother of another 17-year-old boy who said he was also a recognized refugee and had been a student at a Sudanese community-run school in Ma’adi before being deported.
The February 8 fight occurred on 68th Street in the Ma’adi neighborhood between two Sudanese gangs, the “Outlaws” and the “Lost Boys.” Community workers described gang rivalries as a growing problem among Sudanese youth in Cairo. However, relatives and lawyers told Human Rights Watch that some of those detained were neither gang members nor present at the scene of the fight, and that police had apparently arrested them simply because they appeared to be Sudanese.
“The fight happened at around 8 p.m. and [my husband] was arrested at 10:45 p.m. when he was going to Ma’adi to visit a sick relative in the hospital there,” the wife of one of the deportees said. The cousin of another man described him as a commerce student in his mid-thirties who was arrested when he went to Ma’adi that night from Helwan University to visit a friend.
Some of those apparently deported to Juba are originally from southern Sudan, but Human Rights Watch spoke to the relatives of one man who had been born in Khartoum, in northern Sudan, and another man whose family had fled to Khartoum when he was 2 years old.
“These deportations seriously undermine Egypt’s reputation as a country that has tolerated the presence of millions of Sudanese for decades,” said Stork.
These deportations follow Egypt’s reported earlier deportation to Sudan of some of a group of 48 African refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who had crossed through Egypt to Israel, and whom Israel then forcibly returned to Egypt on August 18, 2007. Egyptian authorities claim that all 48 were freed in Egypt, but media reports later in 2007 and in early 2008 stated that between five and 20 members of the group had been deported to Sudan. UNHCR in Egypt had recognized 23 members of the 48 as refugees or asylum seekers. Also, 44 Sudanese members of the group may have had valid asylum claims since they attempted to enter Israel, which Sudanese officials said could be grounds to charge them with treason.