(Beirut) – The Egyptian authorities have failed to protect vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers from pervasive sexual violence, including by failing to investigate rape and sexual assault, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch documented 11 incidents of sexual violence committed in Egypt between 2016 and 2022 against seven Sudanese and Yemeni refugees and asylum seekers, including one child. All six women, including a transgender woman, said that men raped them, and four said they were assaulted in two or more incidents, while the child’s mother said a man raped her 11-year-old daughter. Three said the police refused to file incident reports, three said they were too intimidated to report the incident at all, and one woman said a police employee sexually harassed her when she tried to report a rape.
“Not only are refugee women and girls in Egypt living in vulnerable situations at risk of sexual violence, but the authorities seem to have no interest in protecting them or investigating the incidents, let alone bringing the rapists to justice,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities’ evident lack of interest in these cases leaves refugee women with no place to turn for justice.”
Sexual violence against women and girls in Egypt has been a pervasive problem in recent years as the government has largely failed to establish and carry out proper policies and investigation systems or enact necessary legislation to address the problem. In 2017, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey stated that Cairo, where more than a third of refugees in Egypt live according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), was the world’s most dangerous megacity for women.
Many refugee communities in Cairo and Giza are located in poorer neighborhoods and areas with high crime rates. This exacerbates the risks for refugee women and girls, whom attackers already appear to target based on their actual or perceived vulnerability linked to poverty and legal status.
Human Rights Watch interviewed six women and the mother of the child, three aid workers, and a lawyer, all in Egypt. In four cases, Human Rights Watch reviewed additional evidence including photographs and medical reports corroborating the accounts.
All six women said they experienced severe physical effects of the rape, such as bleeding or inflammation, difficulty walking, bruises, soreness, and other injuries. Three of the rapes resulted in pregnancy. Police referred none of the four who approached them to forensic or health care services.
Survivors also reported several psychological issues including sleeping problems, constant feelings of fear including of being followed, anger, frustration, depression, and memory issues. The transgender woman said she had suicidal thoughts.
Five of the women are Sudanese, two refugees and three asylum seekers registered with UNHCR. The other two are Yemeni, one a registered refugee and the other a registered asylum seeker. All arrived in Egypt between 2016 and 2020. One rapist was from Syria, another from Sudan, and the rest were Egyptian. At least one attack, in which the woman was abducted and repeatedly assaulted, appears to have been racially motivated. The survivor reported that the Egyptian rapist said, “let us enjoy this Black skin color.”
The women all said they could not afford to hire a lawyer.
Egyptian authorities should perform their legal duties under domestic law and international human rights law and thoroughly investigate all rape allegations, Human Rights Watch said. This would include filling out a First Information Report, a written document prepared by police when they receive initial information or allegation that a crime has occurred, the first step to ensure access to justice.
The authorities should also establish “firewalls” to separate enforcement of immigration laws from the need to protect people, including in the context of police response to violent crime. Refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants who are undocumented, or whose documentation has expired, should be able to report violent incidents to the police without fear of reprisals related to their legal immigration status.
As of August 2022, Egypt hosted more than 288,000 UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers, the majority from Syria or sub-Saharan Africa. Many others most likely remain undocumented.
Official numbers show that sexual and gender-based violence is a pervasive problem for Egypt’s refugee communities. In 2021, UNHCR said it provided gender-based violence response services to more than 2,300 registered refugees. The agency said that rape was the most common form of sexual and gender-based violence reported in 2019, with African nationals constituting the majority of survivors. During October 2019 alone, the agency received reports of 85 rapes and 30 other sexual assaults, 18 physical assaults, and six cases of psychological abuse.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the Egyptian Prosecutor General, Ministry of Interior, and the National Council for Women, on October 27, 2022, requesting figures on the sexual violence cases at courts and prosecution, procedures for registering complaints, and available services for survivors. At the time of writing, these officials had not responded. Human Rights Watch also wrote to UNHCR on October 13, 2022, requesting figures on sexual violence incidents reported to the agency and its partners and information about any trainings the agency may provide to the Egyptian police personnel. At the time of writing, UNHCR had not responded.
Egypt lacks gender-responsive policing. The authorities deploy female police to combat sexual harassment on the streets during holidays, but it is very rare to find a female officer in a police station. Poor police response to rape allegations and authorities’ failure to properly investigate allegations harms Egyptian women as well, but refugee women face additional obstacles.
“Asylum seekers and refugees fleeing persecution or other harm in their own countries should be protected in Egypt, not subjected to further abuse,” Fakih said. “The Egyptian government should overhaul its system for responding to sexual assault incidents, and make sure that sexual and reproductive care and services for sexual violence survivors are readily available, including emergency contraception.”
Refugees in Egypt
Egypt is a party to the 1951 United Nations and 1969 African refugee conventions. It has no national asylum system and does not send refugees to refugee camps. Most asylum seekers and refugees live in urban areas and UNHCR handles registration, documentation, and determination of refugee status for asylum seekers and refugees in Egypt.
The government allows those registered with UNHCR to regularize their residency via renewable six-month residence permits. However, ongoing barriers to registering with UNHCR and to obtaining or renewing residence permits have left many asylum seekers and refugees undocumented or with expired permits, increasing their vulnerability to exploitation, abuse, and deportation.
Human Rights Watch and other organizations have previously documented serious abuses against asylum seekers and refugees by Egyptian authorities. These include forced labor and physical abuse, in some cases during or following raids to check residency permits; arbitrary detention in poor conditions in Egyptian police stations; and deportations of asylum seekers to a country where they risked facing persecution, torture, or other serious human rights abuses, in violation of the principle of nonrefoulement under international law.
Reports have also indicated that Black refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa experience racist harassment and violence by the Egyptian police as well as members of the public.
Barriers to Police, Legal, and Medical Assistance
In addition to refugee survivors of sexual violence, Human Rights Watch interviewed three staff members of two international aid agencies as well as a lawyer with a local women’s rights organization, who all work with survivors of sexual violence among refugee communities in Egypt. The three aid workers said that police stations are often not safe places for refugees because police can detain them if their residency permit is invalid, which is often the case due to renewal barriers.
They also said Egyptian police in most cases would ask the rape survivor to provide the full name of the rapist to agree to fill out an incident report. Filing a report is necessary, but not a guarantee, that the police would initiate an investigation.
One aid worker said that police sometimes do not even allow refugee women to enter the police station or require them to pay a bribe to enter.
The Refugees Platform in Egypt, a local rights group, said that between 2020 and mid-2021, they documented eight cases of refugee and asylum-seeking women who were unable to file reports of rape incidents in five police stations in Cairo and Giza because police there demanded that survivors state the full name of the rapist, which they did not have. The group also said that authorities did not refer any of the eight women to medical or forensic services.
An Egyptian lawyer who specializes in sexual violence cases said that because refugees are usually without legal aid services, they are not able to follow other legal avenues to register a complaint when police are unwilling to file a report of a rape allegation.
In August 2017, June 2021, and February 2022, police did not allow one asylum seeker and two refugee women interviewed to report rape incidents in police stations in the Cairo neighborhoods of Ain Shams, the Tenth Neighborhood, and Dar al-Salam. Two of these women said that the police at these stations required them to provide the full name and address of the rapists to register their complaints, but both did not have this information, while the third one said that a police employee touched her on a sensitive part of her body, causing her to leave the police station without filing a report.
Another refugee woman, who said she was raped in October 2021, and the refugee mother of the girl who was raped in May 2020 at age 11, said they both did not attempt to report the incidents. The mother said she thought the police would ask her for evidence of the rape that she would not be able to provide, and the other woman said that her community members told her that the Egyptian police would not take her allegation seriously.
One aid worker said that their organization never recommends to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) refugees who are sexually assaulted to report incidents to the police, out of fear that police will instead arrest them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Human Rights Watch has previously documented cases of systematic arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and other abuses, including sexual violence, against LGBT people by Egyptian police and National Security Agency officials.
The transgender woman refugee said that a group of Egyptian men raped her in a private car after abducting her at knifepoint in January 2022. She said she did not file a police report about the incident because of a previous experience in 2020 at a Cairo police station, where she was arbitrarily detained in a men’s cell on “morality” charges due to her gender identity, during which time a police employee sexually assaulted her. Human Rights Watch has previously documented that transgender women are likely to face sexual assault and other forms of ill-treatment when detained in men’s cells.
All six women interviewed and the mother of the child who was raped said they could not afford a private lawyer to represent them. The girl’s mother and another woman said they were unemployed, while the others worked in low-paid positions, such as domestic workers or henna makers. Three were single mothers. According to a 2018 UNHCR report, 35 percent of refugee women in Egypt were unemployed, while 49 percent were only employed occasionally on a seasonal basis.
Two of the women said they received threats from unknown phone numbers following the rape incidents, most likely from the attackers or people related to the attackers. Human Rights Watch reviewed screenshots shared by the women showing the threatening texts. Such messages would be valuable information in official investigations, but none were underway.
Some rape survivors among refugee women in Egypt experience repeated incidents of sexual assault due to their vulnerability linked to their legal and economic status, the impunity for attackers, and lack of protection, as was the case for four women interviewed. Another aid worker said that 20 of dozens of survivors she worked with over six months between 2021 and 2022 experienced multiple assaults.
None of the women received post-rape care at public health institutions, but all received some health care services and psychological counseling at an international aid agency, they said. They all said the agency’s response was helpful, but the services were not always quickly accessible.
One woman said that in June 2021 she approached a government hospital in Cairo, seeking health care after being raped. She said she was bleeding, but that a doctor at the reception told her “I am sorry, but I cannot help you.”
Two survivors and the mother of the child said the assaults resulted in pregnancy. Abortion at any stage is criminalized in Egypt, including in cases of rape. One adult survivor and the girl’s mother, however, were able to secure pills outside legal healthcare settings for medical abortions. The other woman learned about her pregnancy too late for a medical abortion and was also pressured by her mother not to go for an abortion.
Accounts by Survivors
The following are accounts by several survivors, all of whom were given pseudonyms for their protection.
“Sara,” 32, a Sudanese refugee
On February 8, 2022, Sara said, she went out with her two children in the evening to buy some groceries in the Ain Shams suburb of Cairo, where she lives. She said that when she arrived back home and opened the door of her flat, she suddenly found two men she believed were from Sudan, from their dialect, behind her who shoved her and the children into the flat and closed the door:
One of the men kept my six-year-old daughter and my two-year-old son in the living room, the other one grabbed me into a bedroom. He had a knife and said, “if you cry, I will give this knife to my friend and he will kill your kids,” and then he raped me. After the two left, my kids came to the bedroom; we all were crying.
Sara decided to report the incident to the police at the Ain Shams station two days later:
When I went to the police station, a police employee at the front gate stopped me. I told him I wanted to report a rape incident. He asked if I had the names or addresses of the two men, which I did not, so he told me “You cannot fill in a report.” He did not even let me into the police station.
Sara said that her daughter had developed urinary incontinence following the incident. She said, “My daughter has been asking me, ‘Mama, those who beat you, will they come again?’”
Sara said she has never felt safe in Egypt and was previously sexually assaulted in December 2016:
I was taking a microbus in Nasr City (a neighborhood in Cairo). I was pregnant at this time, and an Egyptian guy sitting next to me started to touch my body. I asked him to take his hands off me and he showed me some money to get me to allow it. I shouted at him and the car stopped. Most of the passengers blamed me saying I was “not a polite woman.”
“Soaad,” 53, a Sudanese asylum seeker
Soaad said that on June 23, 2021, she went to a home in the Mokattam neighborhood of Cairo to make henna tattoos for a bride and her other family members:
I went to the house at around 3 p.m. and continued to work until 3 a.m. the next day. They paid me and everything was okay. A young man from the family told me that he could give me a ride, so I got into his car and fell asleep on the way. I then woke up in the basement of some building under construction totally naked with both my hands and my legs tied and my mouth taped shut.
Soaad said she did not see the man who gave her the ride. She said there were three other young attackers, all Egyptian, who kept her for three days in the basement and most likely drugged her to facilitate the rape:
For three days they gave me only water, dates, and tea. After I drank this tea I would sleep for long time, and during this time they would rape me, anal[ly] and vaginal[ly]. When I regained consciousness, I was crying and asked them “why are you doing this?” They said, “We will release you after two weeks when you get pregnant.” I told them I could not be pregnant at my age, and they said, “then let us enjoy this Black skin color.” They put out cigarettes on several parts of my body.
Soaad said she was only freed when an older man, who may have been a relative of the three, came to the basement and beat them. He then gave them the keys to his car, ordering them to take Soaad away or he would call the police:
The three took me in the car and dropped me somewhere I could not recognize. They took all my money and my mobile phone. I walked to a main road and asked a guy on motorbike to take me to the nearest transportation station and he gave me 20 EGP (US$1). I took public transport to al-Hay al-Asher [Tenth Neighborhood]. Once I arrived, I fainted; people in the street woke me up but I could not speak at all. Then they took me to the police station where the police told me they could not file a report because I did not know the names of the [attackers].
At the police station, Soaad said, a police officer said to her, “It is just youngsters who tricked you, they will not do anything further. It already happened; if you register a complaint, what are you going to achieve?”
She said that she was still bleeding two days later when she went to report the incident at another police station in Dar al-Salam:
I told them everything that happened. They then told me to go and report it at Mokattam police station. One police employee said to me, “You just want to file a report to travel out of Egypt to Europe [referring to refugee resettlement facilitated by UNHCR], and to get money from UNHCR. What is our responsibility here?”
“Amal,” 29, a Sudanese refugee
Amal said that in August 2017 she and her friend, a woman from South Sudan, took public transportation while heading to a condolence ceremony in Ramadan City, close to Cairo:
We took a small van with three Egyptian male passengers in it and an Egyptian male driver. On our way my friend noticed that the driver was taking a different route than the one to our destination, and she asked him “where you are going?” One passenger then pulled out a knife and told my friend to shut up, and another pulled out an electric shocker and told me the same, so we figured out that the three and the driver made up the whole transportation thing [as a ruse].
Amal said the driver headed to a remote area and stopped there:
Two men each raped one of us, then they left us in this remote area. We kept walking following the lights until we finally found a main road. Our clothes were completely in disarray as well as our hijabs. We waved for cars to help us, and after many attempts one guy stopped and drove us to the nearest transportation station. Everyone in the street was looking at us and asking, “what happened to you?”
Amal said she decided to report the incident to the police, but her friend told her she could not report it because her husband might kill her if he learned about what happened, so Amal went on her own to Ain Shams police station:
I entered the police station and met a police employee. I told him what happened with me, and he touched my body and said to me, “How did they assault you? I want to see how this happened.” Then I left without filling in a report.
Amal said this was not her first experience of sexual violence in Egypt. She described a prior incident in which she was gang raped by smugglers:
I arrived in Egypt with my husband in July 2016. The smuggler who facilitated our illegal entry to Egypt was chasing us asking for more money. He was fighting with my husband, and we left the whole district after the smuggler and his men intercepted us in the street and attacked my husband, injuring him. But they learned about our new location and one day came asking for my husband while he was at work. When they learned this [that he was at work], they sexually assaulted me.
“Eman,” 45, a Yemeni refugee
Eman said that on January 11, 2022, she went to buy groceries in her neighborhood, Hadayek al-Ahram in Giza. In the shop, some Egyptian men began to harass her:
They approached me and called me “you boy, you girl,” because I am a transgender woman. I stayed in the shop until they left to avoid meeting them outside. I went out after they left, but while walking home the same men came out of a nearby car and asked me to get in the car. They threatened me with a pocketknife, so I had to go with them to a remote area. I tried to resist but couldn’t; they all raped me and then threw me in the street.
Eman said she never considered reporting the incident to the police after her experience in detention serving a prison sentence on “morality” charges linked to her gender identity in 2020 at a Cairo police station, where she was sexually assaulted by a police officer:
I spent six months at this police station, and police there treat people like me as a slave. Once I arrived at the station, the police took me to the thugs who control the cells and offered me to whoever pays most. I was raped more than once by other inmates. I saw people detained for no reason, sometimes they arrested people who visited the police station to file reports. I can’t go to police stations in Egypt. They degrade and hate people like me and will find any way to detain someone like me.
One day a police officer came to the cell where I was being held and asked all inmates to go out to the corridor except for me. When everyone went out, he asked me to take off my shirt and looked at my breasts. He said, “How could these naturally be your breasts? How are they this big?” Then he started to touch me; after he finished, he made a scene pretending that I was harassing him and started beating me on my face until I bled from my nose.
Eman said she reported this assault to the chief of the station, but the officer was already suspended. She said later she was pressured to drop it:
Some time after the assault the chief pressured me to drop the complaint. He said to me, “Drop it or I will make your life a hell,” and he threatened to fabricate more cases against me. I had to drop the complaint eventually as I am a foreigner and have no one in this country. Even my only friend who used to visit me stopped after the police repeatedly asked him if he had sex with me.
Eman said she frequently hears stories of “transgender people held in detention in Egypt.” “Their lives are miserable in these places,” she said.
Human Rights Watch reviewed screenshots of threatening WhatsApp messages Eman received. In one of them, an unknown number texted her, “Why you are in Egypt you bitch and slut, I swear I will get you arrested motherfucker; I know you and will reach you.”
Human Rights Watch reviewed two photographs Eman shared showing bruises on her body resulting from the 2022 rape.
“Fatma,” a Yemeni asylum seeker, raped at age 11
Fatma’s mother said that in May 2020 she sent Fatma to buy some groceries not far from their home. She asked her to take a Tuk-tuk (a three-wheel vehicle) as usual, but roughly 20 minutes after Fatma went out, she came back crying and her face was red:
I asked Fatma what happened, and she said the Tuk-tuk driver [an Egyptian man] took her to a remote area and took off her pants. She was 11 back then and just had her period a few months before. I took her to the bathroom, gave her a shower, and checked her vagina. Everything was fine but she was crying, and I was shocked.
The mother said one month later she noticed Fatma did not have her period:
I started to notice pregnancy symptoms. I was shocked because [I thought] she was still a virgin, so I sought the help of a neighbor doctor. She checked the girl and told me she was pregnant. I took her to more than one doctor to discuss any possibility of abortion, but all refused. While visiting doctors, Fatma was always crying and asking me, “What are you doing to me, mama?”
The mother said she managed to secure some pills that ended the pregnancy:
I gave her these pills and some specific drinks. After the abortion she was so sick and did not eat; she was very weak. Later I spoke with her and explained what happened so she would know; she cried and was shocked.
After the rape incident, her mother said that her daughter was frequently crying and screaming and had sleep problems. She remains anti-social, rarely leaves their home, and wants to drop out of school, her mother said.
Human Rights Watch reviewed a medical examination report issued by an international aid agency on June 30, 2020, after the attack on the girl. The report stated, “Pregnancy test was done: positive.”