(New York) - Egyptian border guards have shot dead three migrants attempting to cross from Egypt to Israel over the past four days, bringing the total number of migrants shot dead at the border so far this year to 12, Human Rights Watch said today. The Egyptian authorities have arrested a number of refugees over the past month, one of whom remains missing, and the authorities also appear to be preparing to deport two refugees from Darfur back to Sudan, where they face detention and torture, Human Rights Watch said.
"Egyptian guards have made the Sinai border a death zone for migrants trying to flee the country," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "What's more, the Egyptian government has not investigated even a single case of the 69 killings of migrants by border guards since 2007."
On March 29, 2010, the border guards shot dead an Eritrean migrant and wounded two others as they tried to cross the Sinai border into Israel. In addition, unnamed Egyptian security sources told Reuters that Egyptian police had shot dead two African migrants, wounded five others, and arrested three more on March 27, also at Egypt's border with Israel.
In response to criticism over the fatal shootings, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in a news release that "the number of deaths in these incidents did not exceed 2 percent in 2008 and 4 percent in 2009 of the total number of migrants attempting to cross."
"What security interest of Egypt's is served by these border guards killing Africans trying to leave Egypt and enter Israel?" Whitson said. "At most, border guards should stop these migrants and allow the UN to determine whether they're entitled to refugee status."
On March 2, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that she knew "of no other country where so many unarmed migrants and asylum seekers appear to have been deliberately killed in this way by government forces." The Egyptian government responded the following day, saying that her statement was full of inaccuracies and false allegations and "lacked the professionalism and impartiality that Egypt expected from such an important international post." Egypt has provided no details about the alleged inaccuracies.
The Egyptian government contends that refugees and other migrants leaving Egypt for Israel pose a threat to Egypt's national security because transnational organized criminal groups are using Egypt as a route to smuggle people and drugs into Israel. The Egyptian government also said that the border guards use force only when necessary, in self defense, and that 14 of its police officerrs have been shot dead in an exchange of fire with "smugglers in Sinai."
While the government may have legitimate security concerns in tackling smuggling of goods and human trafficking across its borders, it has failed to justify the killing of these 69 migrants, Human Rights Watch said.
In its 2008 report, "Sinai Perils," Human Rights Watch documented how in the vast majority of cases of migrants killed at the border, smugglers were not present when border guards opened fire. Refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants who had tried to cross into Israel repeatedly described incidents in which smugglers, in return for payments, led migrants at night to within walking distance of the border, pointed out the way, then withdrew. When the guards open fire, the smugglers are already far away, those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said. Even if the guards were genuinely trying to catch the traffickers, that would not in itself justify lethal force, which should only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life, Human Rights Watch said.
To justify the use of lethal force, under international law the Egyptian government must ensure that there is an independent and public investigation into the circumstances in each fatal shooting of migrants to demonstrate that it was strictly unavoidable to protect life. Where the taking of life cannot be justified, those responsible, including those who gave the orders, should be prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said. In fact, the government has failed to investigate any of these incidents involving the use of lethal force by border guards.
Among the fatal shootings by border guards was the case of Hadja Abbas Haroun, a 28-year-old Darfuri woman, who was seven months pregnant, killed on July 22, 2007, as she was trying to cross the border near al-Aouja, 62 miles south of Rafah.
Egyptian officials have stressed, and some witness accounts confirm, that Egyptian border police follow a common warning procedure before directly targeting people who are trying to cross the border. However, such a warning procedure is irrelevant to requirements for the lawful use of lethal force by police in instances other than self defense. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials "shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force" and may use force "only if other means remain ineffective." When the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must "exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence."
Egypt is violating international requirements for the treatment of refugees in other ways, Human Rights Watch said. Those granted official recognition as refugees by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) should be protected from deportation to countries where they are at risk of persecution. But refugees in Egypt remain vulnerable to deportation despite the fact that they hold documentation from the UNHCR. On January 25, Egyptian authorities sent a UNHCR-recognized refugee, Mohammed El Hadj Abdallah, back to Sudan. He had been arrested in September 2009 in Ismailia, in northern Egypt, then detained until he was deported.
Egyptian authorities now appear to be preparing to deport at least one recognized Sudanese refugee, Mohammad Adam Abdallah. A second recognized refugee, Ishaq Fadl Ahmad Dafa Allah, is detained in Qanater prison and was told by a Sudanese embassy official that he too would soon be deported back to Sudan. The Sudanese embassy has issued a travel document for Abdallah, and Egyptian security officials have moved him from Qanater to the Khalifa police station, which is used as a deportation center. Egyptian security officials arrested the two refugees in Sinai in August 2009 on suspicion of trying to cross the border into Israel.
Both men are from the Zaghawa tribe in Darfur, and were granted refugee status by UNHCR because they had faced persecution, detention, and torture in Sudan and would face persecution if returned there. Sudanese authorities continue to target Darfuri activists all across Sudan. The two men are also active members of the Zaghawa Association, a Darfuri community group in Egypt: Dafa Allah is the chairman and Abdallah a member of the executive committee. Dafa Allah is also active in the Union of Darfur Associations in Egypt, and in that role was providing assistance to other refugees and asylum seekers.
"If Egypt suspects these men of a crime it should charge and try them," Whitson said. "But whether it does or not, it has no authority to deport them to Sudan, where they face persecution."
In December 2008 and January 2009, Egypt forcibly returned more than 45 Eritrean asylum seekers to Eritrea, where they face detention and the risk of torture, without first assessing their protection needs and providing them with the opportunity to make asylum claims. Under refugee law and under the Convention Against Torture, Egypt may not return anyone to a country where he or she faces the risk of torture and persecution.
Sudanese community sources say that over the past three months, the Egyptian authorities have arrested at least 25 recognized refugees from Darfur. Among them is Faisal Mohamed Haroun, a recognized refugee from Darfur, arrested by State Security Investigations officers on January 7 and detained ever since at an undisclosed location.
On January 19, Egyptian Foundation for Refugee Rights lawyers submitted a complaint to the General Prosecutor protesting Haroun's incommunicado detention. They also submitted a request to the prisons authority on February 17 to determine where he was being held, and were told that he was not detained in any Egyptian prison. Incommunicado detention at an undisclosed location amounts to enforced disappearance.
"Incommunicado detention in state security offices is illegal under Egyptian and international law," Whitson said. "The fact that Faisal Haroun is a vulnerable refugee makes it even more urgent to reveal where he is and either charge or immediately release him."