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EGYPT: Human Rights Watch slams Egypt over shootings of refugees

November 12, 2008 |  6:22 am

Sudanese_refugee Hadia Abbas Haroun was seven months pregnant when she escaped Darfur's bloodshed, fleeing into Egypt with dreams of crossing yet another border to start a new life in Israel. But as she sneaked through the the Sinai desert region in July 2007, the Sudanese woman was shot and killed by Egyptian border guards.

The killing of Haroun marked the inception of an Egyptian shoot-to-stop policy that has left at least 33 African migrants, refugees and asylum seekers dead, according to a report released in Cairo today by Human Rights Watch.

“The Egyptian government should send a clear message to stop shooting the defenseless, harmless and [non-threatening] people on the border,” Human Rights Watch researcher Bill Van Esveld told journalists after the release of the 90-page report. “Unfortunately, it does not seem that Egyptian officials here recognize the seriousness of the problem.”

According to the report, compiled by Van Esveld, 32 out of the 33 victims were African. They ranged in age from a 7-year-old girl to a man in his 50s.

"This is a violation of the right to life and international policing standards," said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Human Rights Watch's Middle East and northern Africa division.

Since 2006, more than 130,000 refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants have passed though Egypt and crossed the Sinai border into Israel, according to the report. African migrants have complained about the difficulty of social and economic integration in Egypt. In December 2005, the police attacked thousands of Sudanese refugee protesters who were camped in the street to pressure the UN to relocate them to another country.  The attack, which left at least 20 dead, is still perceived as the most scandalous evidence of the mistreatment of African refugees

In fact, the Sinai border is a perilous region rife with weapons and drug smugglers. The Egyptian government has long been criticized by Israel for failing to prevent weapons smuggling to Gazan militants through Sinai tunnels. 

“We recognize that Sinai is a dangerous place," Van Esveld said, "but in the cases we investigated, there was no threat being posed by the people who were shot at.”

The report also slammed the Egyptian government for not allowing African refugees to make asylum claims, for trying them in military courts and for deporting hundreds of them to conflict zones.   

The report, titled “Sinai Perils: Risks to Migrants, Refugees and Asylum seekers in Egypt and Israel,” also criticizes Israel for returning African refugees and asylum seekers back to Egypt.

“Both Egypt and Israel have responded to this cross-border flow with policies that violate fundamental rights,” said the report.

“Despite the violations of refugee rights on the Egyptian side, Israel had returned many people back to the custody of the Egyptian border police,” added Van Esveld.

The report emphasized that Egypt began a shoot-to-stop policy following a meeting between the Israeli prime minister and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in late June 2007. In the meeting, the two leaders discussed the flow of refugees into Israel by way of Egypt.

“We are not saying that Israel ordered Egypt to kill people; there is no evidence of that,” explained Van Esveld, “but what we are saying is that it seems that Egypt has responded to Israeli pressures with this policy of lethal force.”   

--Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo

Photo: A Sudanese refugee with her 1-year-old son at a camp near the Egyptian-Israeli border. Credit: Newscom

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