Jun 26 2008 (CAIRO) — When 17 Eritrean migrants crept down from a hillside to a central Egypt highway, after slipping undetected into the most populous Arab country, security forces quickly swept in to pick them up.
The Eritreans, including a baby whose mother died on her journey to Egypt, were snared in a growing Egyptian crackdown on African migrants that has seen up to 1,000 Eritrean asylum seekers deported since June 11 despite U.N. objections.
The unlucky newcomers had been hiding in Egypt for up to a month before they were finally caught this week, security sources said. They join hundreds more of their countrymen thought to be detained across Egypt.
Egypt for years tolerated tens of thousands of African migrants who sought work or refuge on its territory. But the detentions and then abrupt deportations this month could mark a shift in Cairo’s longstanding open-door policy toward refugees.
"It’s a worrying pattern," Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch said of the recent deportations, the largest from Egypt of probable refugees in decades.
Egypt’s attitude toward the migrants soured in recent months after it came under pressure to staunch a rising flow of Africans over its sensitive Sinai border into Israel. Police have also shot dead 14 African migrants at the border this year.
Hundreds more Eritreans detained in Egypt remain at risk of deportation and could face torture at home, says Amnesty International, which labelled the returns as "flights to death".
"There is a huge fear that Egypt will continue rolling back on its refugee obligations ... It’s a really unfortunate trend," an Amnesty spokeswoman said.
NEW KIND OF MIGRATION
Activists say Egypt appears to be reacting to a new pattern of migration in which African migrants arriving either by boat from the Red Sea or by land from Sudan seek to use Egypt as a launch pad to sneak over the desert border into Israel.
Previous waves of migrants would simply stay in Egypt, living for years off its large informal economy. But the new migrants often bypass all border controls — anathema to security-conscious Egypt — and head straight for Sinai.
"This is a government that is effectively saying the only choice is to either murder African migrants on the borders of Israel or send them back to torture and murder in their countries," said Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
"Our biggest fear is this is going to expand to include all African migrants," he added.
Activists say the Eritreans may have been targeted because of their rising numbers. Anat Ben Dor, head of the refugee rights law clinic at Israel’s Tel Aviv University, says Eritreans recently surpassed Sudanese as the largest group of African migrants in Israel. Nearly all come via Egypt.
The Eritreans include Pentecostal Christians fleeing religious persecution who activists say may be drawn to Israel for religious reasons, and others trying to avoid military service. Many are not keen to stay in Egypt, where they face racism and economic marginalisation, rights activists say.
The United Nations, which says Eritrean deportees risk torture in Asmara, has appealed to Egypt for information on the location and fate of 1,400 detained Eritreans, although rights groups say most of them have likely already been deported.
WELCOME WEARS THIN
Egypt, facing international pressure over the deportations, agreed last week to let the U.N. refugee agency visit detained Eritreans for the first time since February, when it cut access. Teams saw 140 Eritreans but were denied access to hundreds more.
Egypt’s foreign ministry has criticised the "Western wail" over the migrants and says Cairo was simply trying to balance its security needs with respect for international obligations.
But there have long been hints that Egypt’s welcome of African migrants was wearing out. Police killed over two dozen Sudanese in 2005 when they broke up a sit-in near U.N. offices in Cairo by asylum seekers demanding resettlement in the West.
But activists say despite its crackdown, Egypt is unlikely to see a huge drop in African migrants trying to pass through, noting a muted global reaction to the recent deportations.
Eritreans in particular have already taken significant risks to leave their country, and do not see other nearby states such as Sudan or Libya as safe or attractive options, activists said.
"They are already risking getting shot on the border to get into Sudan," said Bill Van Esveld, a fellow at Human Rights Watch. "I don’t think this is going to stop them from coming ... There is nowhere else for them to go."