01 May 2009

In Egypt, on the route of the Eritrean diaspora toward Israel

ZamalekROME, 5th May 2009 - Asmara, Cairo, Tripoli, Asmara. Father Austin glances through a dozen white envelopes. He checks the addresses written in pen. There are no stamps. These are the letters of Eritrean prisoners of Burg el Arab. We are in Egypt. The parish of Saint Yousuf, on the Nile island of Zamalek in the centre of Cairo, is a reference point for about 200 Eritreans living in the neighbourhood. The day before a delegation of the parish visited the prison in Burg el Arab, in the north, near Alexandria. They met 15 detainees, who gave them these letters to send to their relatives. Just in Burg el Arab, there are around 170 Eritreans detainees. And not only there. During the last two years, half of the Egyptian prisons have been filled with Eritreans and Sudanese refugees. Once arrested in the Sinai Peninsula, they are brought to Qanater, in Cairo, el-Arish and Rafah, near the Gaza Strip, and in the south in Hurghada, Shallal, Aswan.

It's the new route of the Sudanese and Eritrean diaspora. The final destination is Israel. They enter in Egypt from Sudan, by land, or by plane, in Cairo, holding a tourist visa. From the capital, some intermediaries organize the transport to Isma’iliyah, in the north, often hidden in the trucks. From there, the exiles are brought to el-Arish and Rafah. Thanks to its proximity to the Gaza Strip, these cities have been living off any kind of smuggling for years. And it’s quite easy to find guides that can take you to the Israeli border, in the desert of Sinai. Passengers are then, often left to themselves along the barbed wire fence on the border. Down there the greatest danger is represented by the border police, which in these cases has the order to shoot on sight. In 2008 Amnesty International denounced the killing of 25 refugees, shot dead in the Sinai. Many of the victims were Eritreans. Like the two young men mortally wounded on 17th September 2007: Isequ Meles, 24 years old, and Yemane Eyasu, 30. Both had the blue card released by the High Commissioner for Refugees of the United Nations (UNHCR), which recognized them as political refugees.

A year and half after their murder, I meet two of their friends. Their names are M. and I., they ask to speak under anonymity. We have dinner together in a Lebanese restaurant in Mohandesin, in Cairo.
I. was arrested in May of 2008. At that time he was in Isma'iliyah, directed to Israel. Police caught him while he was walking, alone, in the street. Up to 60 people were kept in cells of eight meters by five. They slept on the ground, one on top of the other, with only one bathroom, locked up 24 hours a day, eating just bread, cheese and tahina (a sesame sauce). There were Eritreans, Sudanese, but also Ivorians, Nigerians and Cameroonians, as the route is now practiced also by the Western Africans. Most of them were arrested while crossing the Sinai. There were also some Eritreans who came from Libya. Instead of  risking their lives in the Mediterranean sea as well as in the Libyan prisons, they had preferred to try their fate with the Jewish State. I. remembers the pungent smell of those days. Many suffered dysentery. Others had bad dermatitis and scabies. I. will not forget the humiliation, the insults and the violence of the police, like when they were beaten after the ineffective hunger strike that lasted two days. I. was released after 24 days in jail. Thanks to his UNHCR blue card. All the others were deported.

From 11th to 20th June 2008, at least 810 Eritreans were repatriated from Egypt. While in Cairo Amnesty International launched cries of alarm, in Asmara, the State television Eri TV broadcasted the images of the repatriated, warmly greeting their return. A government spokesman announced that all of them would early go back to their families, and even receive a compensation of 500 Nafaa, about $50. But that was not the case. Their relatives who live in Cairo know it for sure. They are in permanent contact with their families in Eritrea. They say that only women with children were released. The others were brought back to the army they deserted, or in prison, as in the case of C..

C.  was imprisoned with I. in the jail of Isma'iliyah. And he was deported in June 2008. After six months of silence, he called M., a friend of I., in January 2009. He phoned from Khartoum, in Sudan, where he is still living. He told they managed to escape from the prison of Weea, near Gelaelo, with three other political prisoners. The prison of Weea has a very bad reputation in Eritrea. It is located in a depression, one of the hottest areas of the country. Among the several tortures, prisoners are often exposed to the sun during the hottest hours of the day, when the temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit . M. knows well Weea. He was part of the group of university students arrested and taken to this jail in August 2001 after their demonstrations against the authoritarian turning point of President Issaias. The protests culminated with the annulment of the elections, the arrest of 11 important personalities of the Government and political parties, the expulsion of the Italian Ambassador and the banning of the independent press. Two of the arrested students in 2001, died. Anyway not all the repatriated were brought to Weea, for sure. According to our information, the deserters would have been brought back to their army units. While those who had not yet started the military service would have been sent to Klima’s military training camp, near Aseb. Then others would have simply disappeared: their families have no ideas of what happened to them since their return.

Despite the collective deportations, however, the departures towards Israel continue. Until the point that the Israeli parliament has recently voted in first reading, a draft infiltration law which provides up to seven years of jail for illegal entry into its territory. But when did this new route open? And why Israel instead of Europe? To understand it we have to do a step back.

It was 1983, when the third war in South Sudan started. A war which killed two million of people during 20 years of fighting between the army and the rebels of the SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army), causing hundreds of thousands of displaced people inside and outside the country. Egypt in the north was one of the natural ways out. The first refugees arrived in Cairo in 1985. They were assisted by Abbasiyah's Combonian Fathers of the Church of the Holy Heart.

"At the beginning we hosted them in the church - remembers father Simon -. They were about 100 people with about twenty children. We organized a small school for them." Today the children are 1,200, distributed in four schools in Santa Bakita, Kilo Arba-u-nus, Zeytun and Maadi, plus the children who attend the 12 other schools set up by the other churches in Cairo. Yes, because since 1985 the flow never stopped. The war in southern Sudan ended in 2005. From 1994 to 2005 the mission of the UNHCR in Cairo received 58,535 applications for political asylum from Sudaneses people. 31,990 of them obtained the status of refugee, and 16,675 were resettled abroad, especially in the United States of America, Canada, Sweden and Australia. In 2005, after the end of the war in south Sudan, the UNHCR suspended the resettlement program and stopped recognizing political asylum to refugees from Sudan. But in the meantime, in 2003, a second war started in the Sudanese region of Darfur, opposing the Arab militias of Janjaweed, supported by the government in Khartoum, to the local rebel groups, the SLA (Sudan Liberation Army) and JEM (Justice and Equality Movement). Part of the displaced people started arriving in Cairo since 2004 looking in vain for political asylum and resettlement.

The protest started in October 2005. Asking for their rights, a group of 2,000 asylum seekers from Darfour made a permanent sit-in in the park of the Mustafa Mahmud mosque, in Mohandesin, close to the UNHCR headquarters. In mid-November, the UNHCR decided to close their offices, without giving further explanations. In the early hours of Friday 30th December 2005, the police raided the camp and clashes ensued in the presence of TV cameras and press. They dragged the refugees across the street, pulled women from their hair and pushed the elderly carrying newborn babies. 28 people were killed, including seven women and two children. At the end of the day 2.174 refugees were arrested and put in different jails in Egypt. A group of some hundreds of people were released few days after, in front of the Comboni Church of Abbasiyah. Among them there were people who suffered fractures and injuries and had not received any medical help.

It's been since then - father Simon thinks - that African refugees started thinking about Israel. The dates coincide. The number of African refugees intercepted by the Israeli security forces on the border with Egypt rose suddenly from 200 in 2005 to 1,200 in 2006. The first who arrived, created the dream. Within a few months, the news came to the 30,000 Sudanese refugees living in Cairo and to their families in Sudan. In a short time, even the Eritrean diaspora in Khartoum heard the voice about the new route. In 2007, the number of refugees who entered into Israel from Sinai came around to 5,500, which then became 2,000 just in the first quarter of 2008.

Anyway not everyone dreams about Tel Aviv. Baptiste is one of them. Sudanese from Wao, he has been living in Cairo since 2003. He teaches music at a Combonian school. He doesn’t want even to hear talking about Israel. The journey is too expensive (up to 1,000$) and too dangerous, since you can be shot dead at the border. "Those who want to leave – he says – are those who have lost the hope."

Learn More
Amnesty International Report 2008
UNHCR Report 2008
Resolution of the European Parliament, 2002

Amnesty International Report 2008

Forced Migration and Refugee Studies program (FMRS) of the American University in Cairo,
A TRAGEDY OF FAILURES AND FALSE EXPECTATIONS: Report on the Events Surrounding the Three-month Sit-in and Forced Removal of Sudanese Refugees in Cairo, September-December 2005 June 2006

See also:
Letter from an Eritrean refugee detained in Egypt
Egypt: deportations of Eritrean refugees continue
Sinai: Human Rights Watch condemns Egypt
Israel: new deportations of refugees to Egypt
Egypt: Amnesty calls for an investigation on the deaths of Sinai
Egypt: new collective deportation of Eritreans
Italy: 2,589 Eritreans landed in Sicily in 2006