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Letter to Egyptian Foreign Minister Regarding the Election of Hisham Badr as UNHCR Executive Committee Chairman

H.E. Ahmed Abul Gheit

Minister of Foreign Affairs

Ministry of Foreign Affairs


Your Excellency,

Congratulations on the election of Egyptian Ambassador Hisham Badr as chairman of the Executive Committee (ExCom) of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Assuming this position is both an honor and an opportunity for Egypt to act as an assertive global voice to enhance the protection of some of the world's most vulnerable people.

We call on the Egyptian government to take this opportunity to show leadership in the realm of international refugee protection. As an urgent first step, Egypt should immediately end its shoot-to-stop policy aimed at people trying to cross the Egypt-Israel border, at least some of whom-based on their countries of origin-are likely to be asylum seekers. Since 2007 Egyptian border guards have killed at least 85 people attempting to cross the border. We also call on you to allow UNHCR access to all foreign nationals arrested in Sinai to identify individuals wishing to claim asylum.

As a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention Egypt has bound itself to fundamental refugee protection principles and has formally agreed in its 1954 Memorandum of Understanding with UNHCR to allow it to carry out its mandated activities to protect refugees and asylum seekers on Egyptian soil. However, Egypt has blocked UNHCR's access to people in detention seeking to make refugee claims and has deported refugees to places where they would face persecution.

In light of Egypt's well-documented failures to respect and protect the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and other stateless persons and foreign nationals in need of protection in Egypt-which include its fatal shootings of border-crossers at the Israeli border, detaining and deporting recognized refugees, and denying UNHCR access to detained foreign nationals to identify asylum seekers among them-we call on you to take a series of steps to show the world that Egypt is a country that protects the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers by ending the practices that expose these groups to mortal danger when they try to cross into Israel, and that denies refugees and would-be asylum seekers the protection that is their due under international law.

End the use of lethal force against migrants on the Egypt-Israel border

Between July 2007 and September 30, 2010, Egyptian Ministry of Interior border guards shot dead at least 85 people-including a 7-month pregnant woman-attempting to cross from Egypt into Israel. Since the beginning of 2010, border guards have shot and injured another 28 would-be border crossers.

The majority of people trying cross the Sinai desert to reach Israel are Eritrean and Sudanese nationals. Many of the southern Sudanese and Darfuris attempting to cross into Israel lived for years as asylum seekers or refugees in Egypt where they faced police harassment, lack of opportunities to integrate into Egyptian society, and harsh living conditions. Human Rights Watch has documented the appalling conditions in Eritrea leading thousands of Eritrean men and women to flee their homeland to escape abusive military service conditions and religious persecution.

We are aware that Egypt has argued that the Sinai is a military zone that transnational organized criminal groups use as a route to smuggle people and drugs into Israel, but this does not justify these lethal shootings. In its 2008 report Sinai Perils, Human Rights Watch documented how smugglers were not present in the vast majority of cases involving border guards shooting and killing migrants near the Israeli border.

 According to international norms governing the use of force, security forces, including border guards who are trying to arrest traffickers, may only use lethal force in order to protect persons from risk of death or grievous harm. When there is evidence that security forces used lethal force outside of such situations, authorities should investigate and hold those responsible accountable. To our knowledge, as of October 8, 2010, no such investigations have taken place.

We call on Egypt to ensure its border guards use lethal force only when strictly proportional and necessary and to conduct an investigation into each fatal shooting by its guards. We further call on your government to prosecute all those responsible for killings found to be unlawful.

End the deportation of, and threats to deport, refugees and asylum seekers

Over the past three years, Egypt has unlawfully deported recognized refugees, as well as groups of migrants likely to include asylum seekers but who were unable to access UNHCR. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention and under the Convention against Torture, Egypt may not return anyone to a country where he or she faces a risk of persecution or torture.

In June 2008, Egypt deported up to 1,200 Eritreans to Eritrea-where many almost certainly faced detention and ill-treatment at the hands of one of the world's most repressive regimes-without first giving them access to UNHCR. According to a number of reports, 740 of the returnees were subsequently detained by the Eritrean authorities. In December 2008 and January 2009, Egypt forcibly returned a further 45 Eritrean asylum seekers to Eritrea. In mid-April 2008, Egypt deported 49 men to Juba in southern Sudan, of whom at least 11 were asylum seekers or refugees.

In 2010, Egypt also deported a UNHCR-recognized Sudanese refugee to Sudan and initiated deportation proceedings against two refugees from Sudan and one refugee from Eritrea, although the authorities halted the deportation at the last moment after international criticism.

We call on Egypt to end its refoulement of refugees and foreign nationals wishing to claim asylum.

Give UNHCR full access to detained migrants to identify asylum seekers and end arbitrary detention of refugees

Asylum seekers detained in Sinai who want to claim asylum are systematically denied access to UNHCR, which violates their right to seek asylum and not to be deported if they are found to be refugees. Instead, the Egyptian authorities usually contact the detainee's embassy to help organize their deportation.

Refugees and registered asylum seekers mistakenly arrested on suspicion of unlawful presence and detained in locations outside of Sinai, including in Cairo, and who can prove they are registered with UNHCR are generally released. However, in some cases asylum seekers arrested at the Libyan and Sudanese borders have been detained and then denied access to UNHCR.

In 2008, Egypt denied UNHCR access to the above-mentioned 1,200 Eritreans who were detained in various prisons around the country before being deported in June 2008.

In the absence of Egypt conducting refugee status determination procedures, we remind Egypt that it is obliged under the Refugee Convention to give UNHCR access to detained foreign nationals who may want to claim asylum and call on Egypt to grant UNHCR immediate and full access to all refugees and asylum seekers in detention. We also call on Egypt to release all detained refugees unless they have been convicted or held in connection with an offense provided for by law.

We again encourage Egypt to take this opportunity to end its abuse of persons of concern to UNHCR and of all migrants, and to show the leadership on these issues that is expected of the Chair of UNHCR's Executive Committee.

Yours sincerely,

Joe Stork

Deputy Director

Middle East and North Africa Division


Bill Frelick


Refugee Program

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