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Egypt under the spotlight: Can it be a safe third country?

Blog 3

17-03-2017

Abderrahim, T., Knoll, A. 2017. Egypt under the spotlight: can it be a safe third country?. ECDPM Talking Points Blog, 17 March 2017.

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While the EU-Turkey deal, together with the closure of the Balkan route, succeeded in significantly cutting the number of refugees crossing the Balkans, the more perilous Central Mediterranean route is back in the spotlight. Egypt is one of the key points of departure.

In late September, a migrant shipwreck off the Egyptian coast signalled the rising status of Egypt not only as sending and receiving but also as a transit country for migrants. In 2016, 7% of migrants who reached Europe departed from Egypt. According to the UNHCR, between January and September 2016, more than 4,600 foreign nationals attempted to leave irregularly from Egypt, which is a 28% increase compared to the whole of 2015.

Egyptians do not feature among the top-ten nationalities of arrival in Europe at the moment, according to EU figures. Yet, a fear persists that the numbers of Egyptian migrants may well increase due to the current precarious economic situation in the country and its population growth. Moreover, there is a noted increase in the numbers of Egyptian unaccompanied minors travelling irregularly to Italy, whose number increased from 2000 in 2014 to 3000 in 2015. In 2016, Egypt contributed 10% of the total number of unaccompanied minors arriving in Europe. These figures are behind the EU’s interest to fight migrant smuggling, which it believes to be in Egypt’s best interest as well.

The EU and Egypt have reached an agreement to start a formal dialogue on migration that would embed migration at all levels of cooperation and within existing frameworks such as the European Neighborhood Policy, Khartoum and Valletta. As part of heightened efforts to combat smuggling, the EU seeks to help Egypt implement its new 2016-2026 strategy on addressing the ‘root causes’ of migration. Defining details of this formal dialogue is underway.

Discussions on specific projects under the EU Trust Fund for Africa are also ongoing. The first project for Egypt under the EU Trust Fund for North Africa, “Enhancing the Response to Migration Challenges in Egypt”, was formulated and proposed in June 2016. The project is expected to focus on the areas of migration governance, livelihoods and protection and resilience.

According to a non-paper by the EEAS and the European Commission, the Egyptian government has delayed the process of endorsing this project – reportedly due to disagreement over specific elements. This had blocked further cooperation with Egypt under the Trust Fund. Some EU member states, such as Germany, also push for bilateral dialogue and closer cooperation on these issues. However, there are a number of reasons for European caution, even if interests to better control this border are strong.


Egypt, a safe third country?


According to the UNHCR, Egypt currently hosts 187,838 registered refugees and asylum seekers, but estimates of the non-registered individuals are expected to be much higher. Egyptian officials repeatedly claimed that Egypt hosts five million refugees and asylum seekers.

In October 2016, Egypt passed an anti-trafficking law that criminalises smuggling and considers irregular migrants as victims. The law was generally praised as a positive new step. According to Naela Gabr, Chairperson of Egypt’s National Coordinating Committee on Preventing and Combating Illegal Migration, “importantly, the law does not criminalise irregular migrants, does not distinguish between Egyptians and non-Egyptians, and foresees Egypt’s protection in line with the country’s international obligations”. Thus, on paper, a relatively favourable legal framework exists, allowing the EU to consider Egypt as a country to which transit migrants can be sent for asylum processing and the possible return to their home country.

However, concerns persist about the human rights and protection situation for refugees and migrants in Egypt in practice. Reports denouncing torture and other forms of human rights violations towards Egyptian individuals are widespread. Many more challenges in terms of human rights present themselves concerning migrants in the country. For instance, public basic health-care services and education are traditionally accessible only for Syrian and Sudanese refugees and, in addition, the treatment of chronic diseases remains inaccessible.

However, there is a new agreement between the UNHCR and the Egyptian Ministry of Health to extend the provisions of basic health services to refugees of other nationalities. UNHCR still notes that refugees are subject to discrimination and lack physical safety. While the Egyptian president himself reportedly presented his country as a host country, it would be hard for Europe to argue that Egypt is a safe third country.


The political issue of return and readmission


Egypt seems to be willing to cooperate with the EU on curbing migration. Yet, relations regarding migration with Egypt have been slow to take off during recent years – including bilateral agreements such as the 2007 readmission agreement with Italy, which has faced implementation challenges. Lately, Egypt has also declared its rejection of hosting migrant camps. Egypt will not be easily pressured or incentivised into a cooperation that does not reflect its own interests as this North African country remains an important regional player, despite increasing challenges to its influence in the region. Thus, international actors like the EU and the U.S. continue to seek Egypt’s cooperation, especially that they are aware that the country can fall back on its Gulf allies.

A previous experience with the Salloum camp in southern Egypt for sub-Saharan migrants and refugees fleeing the conflict in Libya can help understand Egypt’s rejection of migrant camps. While the newcomers were initially generously welcomed, the situation became tense as numbers increased. As the camp was established near the Egyptian-Libyan border, it posed some difficulties for trade in the region, as the inhabitants of the camp at times blocked roads to demand resettlement in Egypt or in another third country. The camp was then moved to a different place, which eased these tensions. Meanwhile, information circulated about the possibility of building a ‘city for refugees’, which triggered concerns among the local population. For the locals, the idea of setting and directing a permanent camp by the UNHCR undermined Egyptian sovereignty over parts of the territory. Though the UNHCR denied the existence of such plans, the episode brought to surface eventual political tensions behind the issue of migrant camps in certain areas of the country. Notwithstanding this, Egypt currently hosts a significant number of refugees and asylum seekers, but there is less appetite to take more.

Rather than hosting an additional number of refugees, the Egyptian government is more interested in support to provide services for those already present in the country. Naela Gabr explains that adopting strict border control measures may further accentuate the problem. She adds that Egypt places a great emphasis on cooperation with sub-Saharan African countries to address this phenomenon.

During Merkel’s recent visit to Egypt on 2 March, migration featured high on the agenda. Agreements on strengthening border control were reached, but setting migrant camps – or ‘cities for refugees’ – in Egypt was not discussed, at least according to what was officially announced. Behind the scenes, such discussions may well have been pushed.


Concerns about feasibility


A probable deal between the EU and Egypt on the push back of irregular migrants is seen as “neither feasible nor legally enforceable”. The feasibility of the deal pertains to the country’s capacity to implement the deal. In comparison to Tunisia, Egypt has a stronger military and possibly more capacities for border protection, yet there would still be other challenges to implementation of a possible deal.

For instance, while Egypt has passed the new law on smuggling, it remains to be seen how the law will be enforced and whether it will eventually work. Smugglers are used to adapting to new circumstances, which suggests that new methods and routes will be created as long as demand continues. Besides, the economic incentives for smugglers are strong enough to keep the business going – despite the risks. As one Egyptian smuggler reportedly put it, “the threat of prison or the risks of our work are not enough of a deterrent when the gains are so great“. At the same time, the handling by Egyptian authorities of the Rashid tragedy raises questions about the commitment, seriousness and real capacities of the Egyptian government to save lives at sea and provide protection.

With the heightened focus on national security in Egypt, a draconian anti-NGO draft law, and visa restrictions, some humanitarian organisations might not be able to operate and assist refugees, which will eventually limit the protection of these vulnerable groups.


Cooperation beyond border control?


Besides concerns about human rights violations, there are questions about the sustainability of a deal with Egypt on returning and intercepting migrants. Some have noted that the EU risks concluding an agreement with a state “that would then have considerable leverage to exploit the partnership and impose a very high price tag”, or could possibly threaten to terminate the deal, leaving the EU in a difficult situation. Moreover, it may implicitly mean endorsing an authoritarian regime, since Egypt is increasingly perceived as “using the number of migrants as a threat”. However, and most importantly, Egypt has not shown political willingness to agree on a deal on returning migrants and refugees. Thus, as in the case of Tunisia, conflicting priorities are the key reason as of why such deal will be difficult to pursue.

Against this backdrop, the EU will continue its search for a solution to the challenge of irregular migration and deaths at sea. Cooperation with North Africa will continue to be a critical element of the solution. Beyond the question of border control, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt’s role in this solution is to contribute to resolving the crisis in Libya. Last month, the three North African countries have launched a joint initiative to reconcile the conflicting factions in Libya. It is yet to be seen if these joint efforts will succeed in resolving the Libyan crisis and what implications this will have on the migration question.

Read the first blog and the second blog of this series


The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

Photo courtesy of United Nations Photo

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Cross-cutting TopicsAfrica-EU RelationsMigrationEgypt