(Geneva) - Egypt, the new chair of the UN refugee agency's governing body, should immediately end its policy of shooting foreign nationals trying to cross from Egypt into Israel, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the Egyptian authorities. Egypt should also stop impeding the refugee agency's access to foreign nationals detained in Egypt who want to claim asylum.  

Member States of the executive committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) elected Egypt to chair the committee for one year on October 8, 2010. Hisham Badr, Egypt's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva will serve as the chair.

"Egypt today becomes chair of the UNHCR's governing body, while back home it shoots unarmed migrants and blocks UNHCR's access to detainees seeking the agency's protection," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "To be consistent with its position as the executive committee's new chair, Egypt needs to put its own house in order."

Egypt has persistently used unjustifiable lethal force against migrants as they tried to cross from Egypt's Sinai desert into Israel, fatally shooting at least 85 unarmed migrants since July 2007. Based on the preponderance of Eritrean and Sudanese nationals among them, it is likely that at least some had a reasonable case for asylum, Human Rights Watch said. There have been no investigations into these shootings, which were carried out by the border guards attached to the Interior Ministry, and no one has been held to account.

Egypt denies any wrongdoing by its border guards, arguing that Sinai is a sensitive military zone where arms trafficking and smuggling networks operate, and that its border guards fire warning shots before shooting at migrants. However in its 2008 report, "Sinai Perils: Risks to Migrants, Refugees, and Asylum Seekers in Egypt and Israel," Human Rights Watch documented how in the vast majority of cases of migrants killed by border guards, no smugglers were in the vicinity when the guards opened fire.

While Egypt has legitimate security concerns with respect to criminal trafficking, its police must adhere to international norms, which prohibit intentional lethal use of firearms unless strictly unavoidable to protect human life.

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, and the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Egypt is a party, Egypt may not return anyone to a country where he or she faces a risk of persecution or torture.

Since Egypt does not have its own refugee status determination procedures and does not grant asylum to refugees in Egypt, it is obliged to give UNHCR access to all foreign nationals who wish to claim asylum, including those who may be in detention, so the agency can make a determination of the person's possible refugee status.

However, over the past three years, Egypt has unlawfully deported recognized refugees as well as groups of individuals likely to include asylum seekers who were unable to gain access to the local office of UNHCR. Egypt has denied the UNHCR access to hundreds of detained migrants, who include unknown numbers of asylum seekers, in violation of their right to apply for asylum. Instead, Egyptian authorities have usually contacted the detainees' embassies to help organize their deportation.

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 another 45 Eritrean asylum seekers to Eritrea. In mid-April 2008, Egypt deported 49 men to Juba in Southern Sudan, including at least 11 recognized refugees or persons with applications for asylum pending with the UNHCR.

"If Egypt as the chair of UNHCR's executive committee continues to shoot at foreign nationals trying to leave and prevents the refugee agency from fulfilling its protection mandate, it will discredit not only itself but also UNHCR." Stork said.