(Cairo) - Since June 2007, Egyptian border guards have killed at least 32 African migrants trying to cross into Israel, and Israel has forcibly returned at least 139 border crossers to Egypt, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Egypt has detained those returned, not revealed their whereabouts, and reportedly deported some to their home countries where they face a substantial risk of persecution.
In the 90-page report, "Sinai Perils: Risks to Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Egypt and Israel," Human Rights Watch called on Egypt to halt the use of lethal force against border crossers and all deportations of persons to countries where they risk persecution or ill-treatment. Israel should halt forced returns of migrants to Egypt, where they face military court trials and possible unlawful deportation to their countries of origin. Both countries should respect the rights of persons seeking asylum.
"Egypt should stop shooting migrants who pose no threat and deporting others to possible torture," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Israel should not be forcibly returning people to Egypt, where they are detained arbitrarily and even deported to abusive home countries."
"Sinai Perils" documents numerous cases in which Egyptian border guards shot unarmed migrants, including children, as they tried to cross the Sinai border into Israel. The report says that, in Egypt, authorities separate migrant families and incarcerate them, including children, in poor conditions. Egypt puts migrants on trial before military courts, and denies the UN refugee agency access to some of them. Israel also separates families and detains migrants in conditions that are inadequate. Human Rights Watch found that both Egypt and Israel have failed to respect basic asylum procedures.
Since 2006, more than 13,000 migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, primarily from Eritrea and Sudan, have traveled through Egypt and crossed the Sinai border into Israel. Israel forcibly returned 139 of them to Egypt, some in August 2007 and others in August 2008. Israel said Egypt had agreed to the returns and gave assurances that the returnees would not be mistreated, but prior to the first returns Egypt publicly denied that there was any such understanding.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 69 migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Egypt and Israel for the report, as well as government officials and refugee rights organizations in both countries.
In addition to the arbitrary killings on the Sinai border, Egyptian security forces have arrested hundreds of migrants, including children, and held them in harsh conditions. Guidelines by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) state that asylum seekers should be detained only as a last resort. Egypt also denied UNHCR access to all of those returned by Israel, as well as to as many as 1,200 undocumented Eritreans who crossed into Egypt over its southern border with Sudan.
After Israel forcibly returned 48 Africans, mostly Sudanese, to Egypt in August 2007, Egypt prevented the UNHCR and others from having access to them, and reportedly deported up to 20 of them to Sudan despite the risk of arbitrary arrest and torture there. The whereabouts and condition of the 48 remain unknown. In August 2008, Israel forcibly deported another 91 Africans to Egypt. Their whereabouts also remain unknown. Israel apparently did not allow those it forcibly returned to Egypt the opportunity to present asylum claims, in violation of international refugee law.
Separately, in June 2008, Egypt summarily returned to Eritrea up to 1,200 undocumented Eritreans who had crossed into Egypt over its southern border with Sudan, despite the fact that in Eritrea they faced a substantial risk of torture and ill-treatment. Egypt rejected repeated UNHCR appeals not to send them back. According to Eritrean and international human rights organizations, Eritrea is detaining 740 of these returnees at a military prison.
Israeli authorities classify those migrants who cross the Sinai border from Egypt as dangerous "infiltrators," and have detained some for long periods without allowing them to apply for asylum. Israel continues to detain some migrants, including children, for months, separating husbands from their wives and children. Israeli authorities rounded up hundreds of registered asylum seekers and others in February 2008 and again in July.
Israel's inadequate asylum system has blocked migrants' access to asylum procedures and recognized virtually no asylum seekers as refugees, although the government granted 600 Darfuris temporary residency and 2,000 Eritreans temporary work permits.
"Sinai Perils" calls on Egypt to immediately cease its use of lethal force and to investigate all killings by its border forces, and on Israel to cease all returns of migrants to Egypt until there is evidence of a fundamental change in Egypt's policies to respect all the rights to which migrants and asylum seekers are entitled.
Egypt's apparent policy of shooting those who try to cross the border arbitrarily deprives them of the right to life, in violation of Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Police should resort to lethal force only where strictly unavoidable to protect life. Egypt has a right to regulate entry and exit across its borders, but must do so in a manner that does not violate its obligations under international human rights law.
The ICCPR also requires due process and a fair trial for anyone detained on suspicion of violating national laws. While Egypt may penalize unauthorized entry into a restricted military zone such as the Sinai, anyone detained entering these zones has a right to a fair trial.
Under international refugee law, a refugee is a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution if returned to his or her country of origin. An asylum seeker is someone who has notified relevant authorities that he or she wants to make a refugee claim. Refugee law, as well as the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the ICCPR, prohibit both Egypt and Israel from forcibly returning refugees to countries where they have a well-founded fear of persecution or face a real risk of torture, or to third countries that might not respect that prohibition.
Israel, as a state party to the Refugee Convention and Protocol, should detain refugees and asylum seekers only as necessary to ascertain their identity and the basis of their asylum claims, and should not penalize asylum seekers for irregular entry. Egypt, also a state party to the Refugee Convention (as well as to the African Refugee Convention), should allow detained migrants to present asylum claims and have those claims adjudicated, prior to any decision to deport.
Both Israel and Egypt are obliged by refugee law, the ICCPR, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure that children are separated from their parents only when it is in the best interests of the child. They should also ensure that, if a child must be detained, it is in suitable conditions. These conventions also require not to separate families unnecessarily and to take steps to facilitate family reunification, even if the state itself was not directly responsible for their separation.