By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
November 15, 2011 (ADDIS ABABA) – Human Rights Watch on Monday urged the new government in Egypt against deporting Eritrean asylum seekers, who are currently being detained in the North African country.
The international advocacy group said Egyptian authorities are preparing to forcibly return a group of 118 Eritreans, including recent deserters from the Eritrean Army; accusing Cairo of renewing the trend of mass deportations it exercised in 2008 and 2009.
In most cases, Eritrean refugees and asylum-seekers upon return are immediately thrown into secret detention centers where they are subjected to severe torture and other inhuman treatment, the human rights group says.
The consequences are even harsher to returnees who escaped the country’s mandatory military service, which, according to law in the Red Sea nation obliges all citizens under the age of 50 to serve in the military indefinitely.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) research indicated that on 29 October 2011, security guards at the al-Shalal prison in Aswan beat the 118 men, including 40 who already have refugee status, forcing them to sign papers for their ’voluntary’ return to Eritrea.
HRW urged the Egyptian authorities to stop forcing detained Eritreans to sign repatriation forms and allow immediate access to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) so they can interview all detained Eritreans and identify the refugees among them.
"Detaining Eritreans and then beating them to force them to sign ’voluntary’ return papers can’t mask the fact that Egypt is about to commit refoulement, the forced return of refugees to likely persecution," said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch.
"Instead of ripping up refugee law, ignoring UNHCR, and beating migrants and refugees, Egypt should protect them."
Egypt has in the past years forcibly returned thousands of Eritrean asylum seekers without considering their refugee claims. These acts breach international laws which forbid host nations from deporting asylum seekers to countries where they could face a serious risk of persecution upon return.
According to the rights group, Egyptian Interior Ministry officials over the past two months have also given Eritrean embassy officials access to detained Eritreans, including asylum seekers registered by UNHCR in other countries, to help prepare travel documents for their deportation.
“Allowing Eritrean diplomatic officials to visit detained Eritreans, including potential asylum seekers, means Egypt is violating the principle of confidentiality, essential to asylum procedures,” the group said.
The rights group further accused Egyptian authorities of blocking UN refugee agency access to detained migrants.
"By blocking UNHCR from visiting asylum seekers, the Egyptian government not only tramples on their right to seek asylum but disregards its own agreements," Simpson said.
"Egypt needs to reaffirm its agreement to protect asylum seekers and let the refugee agency interview them."
In protest to wide ranging oppression by dictatorial regime in Asmara, every month, hundreds of Eritreans flee home to neighboring countries, risking their lives to cross Eritrea’s heavily patrolled borders. Currently thousands of young Eritreans remain detained incommunicado without charge or trial for evading military conscription, in suspicion of opposition to government or for attempting to escape the country.