Eritreans on the run
The plight of Eritrean asylum-seekers trying to flee war in their homeland and hoping to find refuge in Egypt only to be forcibly deported has incurred the wrath of human rights organisations, writes Gamal Nkrumah
Emerging unsteadily from the Cairo-based Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA) a legal Eritrean refugee lamented that he did not know the whereabouts of his brother and cousin, who are seeking asylum. "I haven't a clue." He was one of thousands of Horn of Africa asylum- seekers in Egypt trying to find out more about the fate of friends and family members thought to be caught up in the latest round of forced deportations of African refugees in the country. Hundreds of Eritreans seeking asylum in Egypt are being summarily returned to their native Eritrea that is currently in a state of war with two of its neighbours Djibouti and Ethiopia. Thousands of Eritrean men are being recruited in preparation of possible armed conflict. Many of them have fled northwards across the desolate moonscapes and rugged mountainous terrain of northern Eritrea and eastern Sudan into Egypt. Most have been rounded up by the authorities and detained, many are subsequently deported, according to human rights organisations.
In Eritrea, human activists warn, they are subjected to persecution and some are held incommunicado, tortured and maltreated. That is especially the case if they try to avoid military conscription. However, it seems that those who inhabit the African Union (AU) c o rridors of powers are oblivious to nightmare.
"It is ironic that even as Egypt hosts the 11th AU Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, widely considered the most important pan-African annual event, that the country is also deporting large numbers of Africans in clear violation of international conventions and the rights of asylum- seekers and refugees," Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) Hossam Bahgat told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The forced deportation of Eritreans has attracted the attention of several international and local Egyptian organisations, including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which has expressed concern for the Eritreans many of whom are believed to be held in the Shallal Military Camp. Observers and activists point out that Egypt is a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to the Status of Refugees (Article 3) and the Organisation of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa which was ratified by Egypt in 1980 and stipulates that the country uphold refugee rights. "Egypt is, therefore, under obligation to respect the principle of non-refoulement [non-forcible repatriation]," Bahgat added.
According to the UNHCR and Reuters (based on leaks from state security personnel) an estimated 1,500 Eritrean asylum-seekers were detained and many of them deported in the past month. "These asylum-seekers should have been deported to, and resettled in, a third country and not forcibly returned to a country at war," Bahgat stressed.
He protested that his official complaint to the Foreign Ministry about the deportation of the Eritreans was ignored. The EIPR, along with some 30 other mainly African human rights organisations, officially filed a complaint to the Egyptian authorities and the African Union requesting immediate action. Again, Bahgat says, the complaint was ignored.
"It is in very poor taste that the Eritrean- Djibouti dispute was discussed at the Sharm El-Sheikh summit. And, at the same time, hundreds of Eritreans were forcibly returned to the war zone which they fled from in the first place because they were trying to avoid forcible recruitment into the Eritrean armed forces," Bahgat explained.
"This is cruel and unethical, and it contravenes international laws and violates the rights of African asylum-seekers," Bahgat added. "People cannot be forced to return to their country of origin if their lives are threatened or they would be subjected to torture."
Other activists and academics concur. Barbara Harrell-Bond, former professor of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo, is of the opinion that the Egyptian authorities have come under tremendous political pressure from the United States and Israel to prevent African refugees from using Egypt as a conduit to settle in Israel. "The Israelis want to stem the tide of African refugees. It is shameful that the US and Israel are stepping up pressure on Egypt and that the Egyptian authorities are succumbing to that pressure," Harrell- Bond explained.