Egypt, a state that over the past four years has allegedly shot and killed more than 80 African migrants trying to cross into Israel over the Sinai Desert border, became chair on Friday of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees executive committee, sparking criticism by human rights groups of Egypt’s refugee policies.
Egypt’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Hisham Badr, denied that Egyptian security forces had a shoot-to-kill policy with African refugees on the border, saying Egypt’s border guards operate under clear instructions not to shoot until fired upon. In an interview with Turtle Bay, Badr insisted that his government’s critics have failed to take account of Egypt’s legitimate security concerns along a highly volatile border region that has been infiltrated by terrorists carrying out attacks against Egyptians and foreign tourists.
Still, the election of Egypt showed more evidence that the U.N.’s system of appointments is driven more by political weight of countries than by their record of achievement. Egypt, which served as the committee’s vice chairman, automatically ascended without a formal election campaign. Its bid was supported by consensus by the committee’s 79 members, including the United States.
Egypt — a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention — is host to more than 42,000 refugees from 38 countries, including Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. But its policies towards some of its refugees have growing increasingly harsh in recent years, according to Human Rights Watch
Egyptian border guards have killed at least 85 migrants since July, 2007, according to Human Rights Watch. Many of those who were only wounded or detained were tried by military courts and sent to their countries of original, often in violation of international treaties prohibiting such returns when there is a reasonable fear they will face persecution.
Alone in one week in June, 2008, Egypt deported 1,200 Eritreans to Eritrea, where more than 740 were detained and were likely to have endured ill treatment, according to Human Rights Watch. Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division, said Egypt’s election threatens to compromise the refugee agencies reputation.
“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 Stork. “To be consistent with its position as the executive committee’s new chair, Egypt needs to put its own house in order.”
Badr, who will serve as chair of the UNHCR executive committee, told Turtle Bay that Egypt’s border with Israel is a highly dangerous strip of territory that is used by arms smugglers, human traffickers and terrorists, entering or leaving Egypt. “Fourteen Egyptian border guards have been killed in recent years monitoring it,” he said.
“We are very keen on protecting and monitoring the border,” he said, but Egyptian border guards have “clear instructions not to shoot” unless they are fired upon. Badr said that many of those who seek to cross the border do it in the middle of the night, making it difficult for border guards to determine whether they are confronting a refugee or a terrorist.
Badr also denied allegations that Egypt is endangering refugees and asylum seekers by sending them back to their countries without a formal review of their case for political asylum. But a 2008 report by Human Rights Watch said most of those killed near the border by Egyptian security forces were African migrants and refugees with no connection to arms trafficking.
UN officials say that Egypt has been generous on refugee issues, offering a haven for hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees that have fled that country’s wars. But once in Egypt, the Sudanese refugees have found it exceedingly difficult to secure political asylum in a third country, particularly the United States, which has shrunk its resettlement program, according to the rights group.
“Refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt face difficult lives marked by poverty and a sensitive political and security environment,” according to a country profile published by UNHCR. “The problems are aggravated by restrictions on employment and access to public schools and the lack of affordable health care. A sharp increase in commodity prices has added to refugees’ woes.”
Egypt’s policy on the Israeli border has toughened over the past four to five years, making it increasingly dangerous for refugees to cross illegally into Israel. The rights group also claims that Israel has forcibly returned significant numbers of refugees to Egypt, denying them the right to seek political asylum.
But UNHCR’s country profile for Egypt bears no mention of the country’s killings in the Sinai, or its forced repatriation policies. It does, however, note that Egypt “has no domestic procedures and institutions for asylum. All aspects of registration, documentation and refugees status determination are carried out by UNHCR under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding with the government. The situation is not expected to change in the near future.”