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Men sitting in a cafe predominantly visited by Sudanese migrants in Cairo, Egypt, 08 August 2017. © 2017 Oliver Weiken/picture alliance via Getty Images

(Beirut) – Egyptian police arbitrarily arrested at least 30 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers during raids in December 2021 and January 2022 and subjected some to forced physical labor and beatings, Human Rights Watch said today.

Some of the activists targeted had mobilized protests at the Cairo headquarters of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, over harassment and racist treatment by Egyptians, a lack of protection, and resettlement delays. They also organized a demonstration at the Sudanese embassy in Cairo to express solidarity with protests in Sudan against the military’s political role there. All of those arrested were registered with the UNHCR either as refugees or asylum seekers and were eventually released without charge.

“Refugees, like everyone else, have the right to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt’s Public Prosecutor should investigate and hold accountable those responsible for arbitrary arrests and mistreatment of Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed three Sudanese refugees who had been arrested, as well as a member of Africans Refugees Rights, a Cairo-based civil society group. They said that on December 27, plainclothes police arbitrarily arrested 24 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers, including well-known community activists, at their homes, coffee shops, on the street, and in community centers in Cairo’s Madinat Nasr.

The police transferred them to a security facility roughly 30 minutes away and forced them to unload boxes from large trucks into warehouses, those interviewed said. They said police used batons to beat those who they claimed were not working hard enough and insulted them with racist remarks. The refugees did not receive any compensation. The boxes had “Tahya Misr” (“Long Live Egypt”) written on them, referring to a program in which the military distributes goods in poor districts.

On December 28, police dropped the men off on El-Moshir Tantawy Road near the security facility, after confiscating their mobile phones and SIM cards.

One of the men told Human Rights Watch that the police had arrested him on December 27 at a community center. He said that one of the police officers who forced them to unload the trucks told him, “You lazy Sudanese need to work because you are making a lot of problems and noise in Egypt.”

In a second raid, on January 5, police arrested 19 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers at the same locations, according to Africans Refugees Rights and the 3 Sudanese refugees. At least seven people arrested in this incident had also been arrested on December 27.

They said the police also forced the 19 men to unload boxes identified as Tahya Misr from trucks at the same security facility. The next day police dropped the group off at El-Moshir Tantawy crossroads.

Two of those arrested on January 5 worked at a Sudanese community center. One man, arrested at his home in Madinat Nasr, told Human Rights Watch that police forced him to work that night from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. unloading boxes from trucks into warehouses. He said the police kicked him and beat him with their hands and rubber batons, claiming he was not working fast enough.   

The other man from the same community center said police arrested him at his home in Cairo’s Al-Shorouk city during both the December and January raids. He said that the police forced him to unload boxes from trucks. In December, he said, the police warned him not to report the incident to UNHCR and threatened to arrest him again.

The three refugees separately each told Human Rights Watch that National Security Agency (NSA) officers in Cairo had summoned them twice during 2021. The three men said that sometimes officers kept them for up to eight hours in the office with no outside contact and threatened to deport them to Sudan if they continued to mobilize Sudanese community protests in front of the UNHCR office or if they reported abuses to UNHCR. They said the security agency had tried to recruit them as informants about Sudanese community activities, which they refused.

One man said that officers threatened to fabricate a drug case against him.

Sudanese refugee community activists in Egypt had organized protests in front of UNHCR headquarters on May 14 and August 5, and in front of the Sudanese embassy in May. Sudanese community activists regularly post accounts of abuses they experience by Egyptian authorities on social media.

Egyptian police have also targeted Sudanese people during raids to check residency permits. A person who witnessed a raid in Giza on January 24 said that the police randomly arrested Sudanese on the streets and in cafes. At least one person required medical attention after the police beat him. On October 11, police detained about 20 Sudanese in homes or cafes, releasing some the next day and holding suspected activists for a week or more, all without charges.

Human Rights Watch reviewed Sudanese government arrest warrants issued in April 2020 for two refugees later targeted in Egyptian police raids in December 2021 and January 2022, which accused them of “offenses against the state undermining the constitutional system.” Egyptian police did not reference the warrants during the December 2021 and January 2022 police raids, nor did the NSA in the 2021 summons.

Human Rights Watch obtained a recording of an April 2020 phone call in which a person claiming to be a Sudanese official threatened one refugee targeted in both the January and December raids, and demanded that he stop mobilizing support in Egypt for Sudanese democracy activists. In the recording, the official named seven other Sudanese refugees in Egypt.

An estimated two to five million Sudanese are living in Egypt. This includes over 52,000 registered Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers, according to UNHCR, which registers and documents the cases of asylum seekers and refugees on behalf of the Egyptian government. Egypt is party to the 1951 UN and 1969 African (OAU) refugee conventions and hosts over 271,000 refugees and asylum seekers from 65 countries. The number of unregistered asylum seekers in the country is unknown.

While registered Sudanese refugees in Egypt have access to public health care and education, nongovernmental organizations and media reports indicate that they and other sub-Saharan African refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants face discrimination and racism.

In response to peaceful protests by Sudanese refugees and migrants in October 2020 after a Sudanese child was killed in Cairo by an Egyptian who had financial issues with the boy’s father, security forces arbitrarily arrested dozens of protesters and subjected some to beatings, racial slurs, and other ill-treatment, according to Amnesty International. Amnesty reported that in November 2020, security forces raided the homes and workplaces of several Sudanese activists in Cairo; others received threatening phone calls.

While Article 3 of the OAU refugee convention requires refugees to abstain from “subversive” activities against an OAU member state and requires state parties to prevent refugees from engaging in activities “likely to cause tensions” between states, the Sudanese refugees’ protests in Egypt did not fall within these categories or pose a threat to national security or public order, Human Rights Watch said. The Article 3 restrictions are also not compatible with the guarantees of freedom of expression and association for everyone regardless of status as articulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. UNHCR has stated that refugees “are entitled to the same freedom of expression, association and assembly as citizens.”

Human Rights Watch wrote to UNHCR in February 22 seeking comment on the arrests of Sudanese refugee activists in Egypt but had not received a comment.

“Silencing activists will not solve the issues of the Sudanese refugee communities, whom authorities should protect from abuse,” Stork said. “Egypt needs to uphold its international obligations, which include eliminating discrimination and protecting basic rights for refugees as well as others.”

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