Guest post by Muhammad al-Kashef. Muhammad is a field researcher and legal consultant with years of experience working alongside refugees and migrants — particularly in detention facilities across Egypt’s north coast. He started working in this field in August 2013 as a migration officer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and a member of Refugees’ Solidarity Movement in Alexandria, by documenting cases inside detention and monitoring the trajectories of irregular migration from North African countries through the Mediterranean. Since then he has taken on a number of roles, including documenting smuggling and human trafficking activities (in the same region) as a member of WatchTheMed-Alarmphone. This is the final instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on ‘Exploring the everyday of immigration detention’, organised by  Annika Lindberg and Laura Rezzonico.

Egypt has been considered a destination country for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees from various Arab Mashreq countries and some African countries, as well as an important transit point in the Mediterranean region due to political instability, conflicts and civil wars in their homelands.  Since mid-2013, as a result of the political crisis in Egypt, asylum seekers and refugees remain subject to numerous abuses and attacks. In 2013, the number of arrests of displaced Syrian and Palestinian refugees increased tremendously. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), from August 2013 to September 2014 more than 6,800 Syrians, including at least 290 children, were arrested and detained.  More than 1,200 refugees were forced to leave Egypt and travel to countries such as Turkey, Malaysia or Lebanon under the threat of detention. On 8 July 2014, the Egyptian government imposed additional measures restricting the entry of Syrians to the country, requiring them to obtain a visa and prior security approval. Because of this, approximately 476 Syrians were deported or denied access to Egyptian territory in the same month. The Egyptian Foreign Minister announced that these measures are temporary and will have no effect on the support afforded to Syrians in Egypt. However, the wave of violence and attacks on Syrian asylum seekers and refugees was reignited after allegations that they were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and former President Mohamed Morsi.

Photo: Refugees' Solidarity Movement in Alexandria

Immigration detention infrastructure

Egypt does not operate detention facilities specifically for migrants. Rather the country’s prisons, police stations and military camps have been used to detain migrants and refugees. A 1986 decree (Decree 659) established that the following prisons are to be used for the temporary custody of foreigners awaiting deportation: Qanater El Khayereya men’s prison, the Qanater El Khayereya women’s prison, the Alexandria Hadra prison, the Port Said prison, and Tura prison. These are all important prisons in Egypt for incarcerating convicted criminals. Among the facilities that reportedly have been used also are: Qanater prison in Cairo, Aswan City police station, Nasr El Nuba police station, the Aswan central security camp in Shalal, Ismailia prison, Azouly military prison, Galaa prison, El Mostaqbal police station and Ismailia police station, Qena police station, Hurghada police station. In my fieldwork, working alongside refugees and migrants — particularly in detention facilities across Egypt’s north coast, I identified another 30 facilities used for detaining migrants and refugees. In addition to these facilities, authorities in Alexandria had reportedly commandeered a youth center, the Anfoushy Youth Center, to accommodate people detained by the Egyptian military trying to leave Egypt irregularly. This facility, as an ad hoc detention site, held approximately 130 people in early October 2014 who had been arrested on Egyptian shores. According to a news report, detainees were denied access to lawyers while held in the youth center.

NGOs and international organizations, including UNHCR, have little or no access to these facilities and access to detainees is restrained. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, as well as representatives from Human Rights Watch were denied permission to visit Egypt in 2014. Therefore, little is known about the conditions of most of these facilities.

Photo: Refugees' Solidarity Movement in Alexandria

In late 2013, a coalition of Egyptian NGOs documented the living situation of several hundred Syrian refugees arrested and arbitrarily detained in Alexandria. They were held in crowded detention facilities that lacked minimum health standards. According to EIPR, some facilities had insect infestations that led to skin diseases and respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses among detainees. According to my experience in this field and accounts by ex-detainees, anywhere between 45-60 people stypically hare cells in Egyptian prisons or police stations. The cells are between 16 to 30 square meters and provide access to a single toilet and washing/drinking facility. Detainees receive one meal a day by UNHCR. A blanket is provided to every prisoner — their only bedding — and each detainee sleeps on the floor. Treatment of detainees varies greatly depending on the particular prison or police station. In police stations, detainees are generally not allowed to leave their cells and are locked up 24 hours a day with no access to food and health care. Cells in police stations can be as small as 3 or 4 square meters and are meant to hold a few people at a time for short periods. The effects of inhumane treatment are not lost on detainees. According to the Refugees Solidarity Movement (RSM), on Monday, February 9, 2015, more than 50 Syrian and Palestinian detained refugees at the Karmouz police station in Alexandria decided to enter a hunger strike protesting against the treatment by the authorities and the sheer neglect and lack of support by humanitarian organisations, like UNHCR.  

Photo: Refugees' Solidarity Movement in Alexandria

Against this context, it comes as no surprise that most asylum seekers decide to leave Egypt to reach the shores of Europe. Most would rather make the perilous journey by sea or land, rather than spend indefinite periods of time in crowded detention facilities that lack minimum health standards. In the years, Egypt has also become an important country for emigration. In 2016 children originating from Egypt became one of the largest group of unaccompanied minors arriving in Europe. The complex political situation and the economic crisis compounded by limited access to human rights groups, does not give much hope for Egypt’s migrants and asylum seekers.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

al-Kashef, M. (2017) Egypt: The Escape Portal. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/12/egypt-escape (Accessed [date]).