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Right to Life, Respect and Protection of Humanity: Guaranteed Rights in Egypt

Government guarantees protecting the rights of individuals enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human rights is not limited to their own citizens only, but also protecting the rights of refugees and migrants to their countries.

Egypt is a country that is committed to protecting refugee rights since it signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, its protocols in 1967, and the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) agreement on refugees in Africa. We will focus on how Egypt upholds some refugee and migrant human rights through combating illegal migration and prevent human trafficking.

Condition of Refugees in Egypt

“Egypt does not build refugee camps and does not allow any boats to leave its shores to sail to Europe with refugees on board,” declared President Abdel-Fatah Al-Sisi, clearly indicating how the Egyptian government deals with refugees or asylum seekers, and can set an example for other countries that receive refugees from poor countries or war zones. 

The number of registered refugees in Egypt in 2019 that UNHCR is in charge of is estimated at 280,000, but according to statements by the president the number of refugees in Egypt is around five million. Regardless of the figure, what is important here is for everyone to recognize that refugees in Egypt enjoy the most basic rights stipulated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UNHCR states that these people are living in local communities side by side with Egyptian citizens, which gives them access to the right to life, freedom, security, work, education, freedom of movement, as well as the right to dignity and equality with others.

Regarding the right to employment, refugees in Egypt do not live on aid or wait for local or international agencies to give them food at isolated camps. They are allowed to work and receive licenses to open restaurants and investment projects in local communities they freely choose.

As for the right to education, the government allows non-Egyptians to either study the Egyptian curriculum or their country’s curriculum at their schools or embassies. Refugees and asylum seekers from Syria, Sudan and Yemen also have access to education, the same as Egyptian citizens. UNHCR is currently in negotiations with the Egyptian government to provide healthcare for refugees and asylum seekers of all nationalities similar to that offered to Egyptian citizens.

All these indicators showcase the extent of support the Egyptian state provides to ensure that non-Egyptians exercise their rights as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Combating Illegal Migration 

Illegal migration is a serious threat that could result in migrants being denied the most basic rights of average citizens. Illegal immigrants are more likely to be denied jobs or subjected to work in sub-humane conditions, sexual exploitation, or illegal activities. This puts their lives in danger and does not guarantee them the stable future they had hoped for when they decided to leave their countries this way.

Egypt was the crossing point for people, mostly Africans, who wanted to reach Israel through the Sinai Peninsula. It was also the crossing point for Syrians who wanted to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. However, all this has changed since 2014 when Egypt became a dead end for illegal emigration due to several measures taken by the government, including:

– The government formed the National Coordinating Committee for the Combat of Illegal Migration and Human Trafficking in March 2014.

– Egypt signed the UN’s Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants and Protocol Against Human Trafficking, and parliament ratified them.

– Egypt issued Law 82 of 2016 banning the smuggling of refugees and illegal migration.

– Cooperating with the EU in an extensive campaign against illegal migration via Egypt’s north coast.

All these measures ended illegal migration from Egypt’s north coast to Europe since 2016. Fabrice Leggeri, executive director of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, said: “There are no illegal refugee boats coming directly from Egypt to the EU, and cooperation with Egypt on this issue is advanced and encouraging”.

As a result of this cooperation between Egypt and the EU, in 2016 Egypt was able to detain 4,600 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants as they tried to illegally migrate. This is almost a 30 per cent increase compared to numbers of the previous year. However, after originally prosecuting lawbreakers, Egyptian authorities no longer prosecute victims and instead detain them on orders from the Department of Passports, Immigration and Nationality. Perpetrators and human trafficking rings, however, are prosecuted.

Combating Human Trafficking

A US report on human trafficking published in March 2019 describes the reality of human trafficking in Egypt, its forms and measures to combat it in 2018 as follows:

– Human traffickers in Egypt take advantage of local and foreign victims, as well as Egyptians overseas.

– Children are trafficked for sexual exploitation, forced labor as domestic help, begging on the streets, dealing in drugs, and farming.

– Traffickers, including guardians, force children to beg or force girls into sex trafficking.

The report described Egypt’s international efforts in combating human trafficking as follows:

– In December 2018, the National Coordinating Committee for the Combat of Illegal Migration and Human Trafficking drew a map showing the governorates and areas in Egypt where trafficking is most common, based on complaints received on the hotline for combating trafficking.

– Some 42 suspected cases of child trafficking were reported on the hotline, which is a slight increase from 33 cases in 2017.

– The committee used the map of human trafficking victims to launch training and awareness campaigns, and the government sponsored several awareness activities in 2018.

– The National Coordinating Committee distributed informational booklets about combating human trafficking to migrant workers, Egyptian embassies and diplomats abroad.

– The National Committee partnered with the National Council for Women to launch a media campaign about treatment of domestic help, and groups that are vulnerable to trafficking.

– The National Coordinating Committee partnered with international organizations and donors to launch an awareness campaign about the risks of illegal emigration.

– The government gave Egyptian diplomats instructions on human trafficking and how to protect victims, as well as training on human rights issues in classes prior to them leaving the country.

– The government provided compulsory training on combating human trafficking to all Egyptians working overseas, as part of peacekeeping missions.

– The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood continued to operate a hotline to combat human trafficking to receive calls on possible trafficking cases, and the hotline was updated in May 2018 allowing to operate around the clock, 24/7.

– The council also trained hotline operators to better handle reports of child trafficking.

– The National Council for Women continued operating a hotline to report possible trafficking cases.

As well as domestic efforts, Egypt’s campaign extended beyond its borders in partnership with other countries in Africa. President Al-Sisi declared combating human trafficking as a priority, and the need for the Coordinating Committee to increase cooperation with African Union countries on human trafficking issues during and after Egypt’s presidency of the AU. The government exempted refugees and asylum seekers from all fees for their presence in the country after their residencies expire.

Egypt’s role in guaranteeing the rights of refugees and equating them to its own citizens, including their right to life, work and education, is undeniable. Its efforts have resulted in a halt in illegal journeys via Egypt’s coast to Europe, and migration of Africans to Israel via Sinai. This has duly reduced the possibility of trafficking or the death of these migrants, which has increased international appreciation of Egypt’s actions on this issue.

In addition to the above-mentioned efforts, there are several recommendations that would increase protection against illegal migration, including:

1- Increasing cooperation with NGOs in raising citizen awareness about the dangers of illegal migration and human trafficking.

2- Assisting AU countries suffering from the same phenomenon in applying the Egyptian model to reduce the impact of illegal migration on African citizens.

3- Urging the global community to invest in African countries to create job opportunities with reasonable income to reduce emigration from poor countries to Europe and Israel.

4- Implementing the Silencing the Guns Initiative in Africa to reduce conflicts on the continent, and the numbers of migrants fleeing war zones.

5- Updating migrant and refugee databases in Egypt, and registering them in the UNHCR’s database.

This article was first published in: Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, Human Rights: The Trajectory to Combat Terrorism, Special edition, Cairo, November 2019.  

Mahmoud Salama
Researcher at Public Policy Program

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