EU migration collaboration with Egypt: critical assessments

The European Union (EU), in order to stem migration, has made deals with Northern African countries like Libya. The latest plan is that Egypt will be the new partner of the EU in helping to decrease the movement of migrants and refugees towards Europe. The collaboration with Libya has faced criticism from international organizations and the civil society as migrants and refugees become trapped in inhumane conditions. The UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has also characterized the EU’s policy of helping Libyan authorities in detaining migrants as “inhuman”. Collaboration with Egypt faces its own critical assessments, as it is a country with dubious human rights records.

The criticism

On September 20, after an informal EU meeting in Salzburg to discuss, among other topics, this of migration, the EU leaders announced their new plans on managing migration. They aim to extend their collaboration with North African countries, particularly with Egypt, to manage migration flows towards Europe. The EU and its Member States have engaged with Egypt on migration for several years, but many have characterized the cooperation as controversial. More specifically, as a report by the Global Detention Project reads,  it  “has been criticized by rights groups and European policy makers because of the wider human rights landscape…Reporting suggests that Egypt has become a “dead-end” for migrants as a result of cooperation with the EU since 2015.”

In Salzburg, President of the European Council Donald Tusk announced that, together with Chancellor Kurz of the Austrian EU rotating Presidency, they have initiated a dialogue with the Egyptian President to stem “illegal migration” to Europe. However, various reports have pointed to the absence of respect of international human rights standards, as the Global Detention Project has highlighted: there are a number of human rights abuses in Egypt as a destination and transit country for refugees and asylum seekers that cannot be dismissed. The report describes that there are around 230,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered bythe UNHCR, of which around 130,000 are Syrians, 40,000 Sudanese, 15,000 Ethiopians and 14,000 Eritreans along with a growing number of Yemenis. It further reads that “the Egyptian criminal law provides grounds for prosecuting people for status-related violations” and describes that in the past sources have reported to the GDP that “authorities frequently charged people for migration-related infractions. However, more recently observers report that authorities generally avoid criminal prosecution, instead holding migrants in detention through administrative orders from the Department of Passports, Immigration and Nationality”. Moreover, Africa Monitors has described that Eritrean refugees in Egypt face “issues of protection, Refugee Status Determination, Resettlement, financial assistance and social services (education, health care and employment).”

Even though Egypt has passed a law in 2016 that criminalized smuggling of people in line with international standards, the GDP report describes that the country “has failed to stop the administrative detention of irregular migrants charged with irregular entry, stay or exit.  Rights groups have repeatedly criticized the country for arbitrarily detaining non-citizensand using military tribunals to try them”.

Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean, said that the EU “cannot ask other countries to do things they are not ready to do themselves,” and suggested that at the European level it is important to work on the internal dimension of processing and distributing refugees. Oxfam’s EU migration policy advisor, Raphael Shilhav, said that the policies of the EU leaders that avoid taking responsibility and rather outsource it onto other countries increase the suffering of people and that the only solution is to reform the European asylum system. Amnesty International posted an article on Egypt and its “unprecedented crackdown freedom of expression”, arguing that “since December 2017 Amnesty International has documented cases of at least 111 individuals who have been detained by the National Security Services solely for criticizing the President and the human rights situation in Egypt.” Last but not least, in 2016 the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had recommended that Egypt “take the necessary measures to put an end to the detention of asylum seekers and refugees and speed up the implementation of the protection regime applicable to them.”

The number of deaths in the Mediterranean might have decreased as less people have crossed, but this has happened through collaborating with and outsourcing the responsibility of managing migration to states whose regimes consistently violate the international human rights laws. Increasingly, human rights organisations call for increased assistance rather than criminalization of refugees, as well as better legal pathways for migration as an alterative.