Cablegate: Egypt: New Approach On Eritrean Refugees
DE RUEHEG #1651/01 2131516
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 311516Z JUL 08
FM AMEMBASSY CAIRO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0114
INFO RUEHAE/AMEMBASSY ASMARA 0160
RUEHKH/AMEMBASSY KHARTOUM 1201
RUEHTV/AMEMBASSY TEL AVIV 1751
RUEHJM/AMCONSUL JERUSALEM 1054
RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA 0394
UNCLAS CAIRO 001651
DEPARTMENT FOR PRM/AFR, NEA/ELA
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREF PREL EG ER IS
SUBJECT: EGYPT: NEW APPROACH ON ERITREAN REFUGEES
REF: CAIRO 1388
Sensitive but unclassified, not for Internet distribution.
1. (SBU) Summary: The GOE has acknowledged that it returned
167 Eritreans that it claims did not need refugee protection
to Eritrea, claims to have "set free" 87 who were arrested in
Egypt but who carried UNHCR refugee identification cards, and
is disputing UNHCR designated refugee status for 130 that the
UNHCR processed in detention in Aswan. In addition, UNHCR
access to 318 Eritreans serving sentences for illegally
attempting to enter Israel is still pending with the Public
Prosecutor's office, according to MFA and UNHCR contacts.
The GOE has changed its previous strategy of denying that it
returned any Eritreans to arguing that not all Eritreans it
arrested are in fact genuine refugees. GOE officials are not
against protecting Eritreans in need per se, but rather worry
that Egypt will be forced to host an undue share of refugees.
2. (SBU) On July 30, MFA Deputy Minister for Refugees Tarek
El Maaty told us that there are 130 Eritreans still awaiting
their fate in detention in Aswan since the UNHCR was allowed
access to them in recent weeks (reftel). He said that the
UNHCR had determined that 128 have valid claims to refugee
status, and are further investigating the other two. In
addition to the Eritreans, El Maaty reported that there were
also 49 Ethiopians held in Aswan, four of which the UNHCR had
determined were refugees. Separately on July 31, UNHCR
Deputy Regional Representative for Protection Katharina Lumpp
confirmed that the "overwhelming majority" of Eritreans that
UNHCR saw in Aswan deserved refugee protection, while most of
the Ethiopians did not.
3. (SBU) While the GOE plans to accept the UNHCR designation
of the four Ethiopians as refugees, El Maaty said that the
GOE disputes giving the Eritreans refugee status and is
engaged in a formal "dialog" with the UNHCR on this point.
He claimed that the Eritreans are military deserters - "this
would be a crime in Egypt!" - or economic migrants. We noted
that Eritreans escaping military service have a well-founded
fear of persecution if returned home, which El Maaty
acknowledged was "an important point."
4. (SBU) El Maaty emphasized that the GOE is formulating a
new process for how to deal with Eritreans escaping military
service or religious persecution. He said that what happens
with the group in Aswan will set a precedent for future
cases, provided a GOE position paper on the topic (setpel),
and said that the GOE wants to ensure that other countries
will "share the burden" of resettling this population. Along
these lines, Lumpp said that the UNHCR had been given
approval to start resettlement processing for some of the
Eritreans held in Aswan.
5. (SBU) In addition, El Maaty reported there were 318 other
Eritreans in Egyptian prisons serving sentences for
attempting to illegally enter Israel. El Maaty and Lumpp
confirmed that the UNHCR had requested access to this group,
and that a decision on this access was now pending with the
Office of the Public Prosecutor. An additional 87 Eritreans
had been arrested attempting to reach Israel but had been
"set free" because they carried UNHCR refugee identification
cards, El Maaty continued. However, he noted that the GOE
had returned to Eritrea 98 others who were arrested at
various locations in Egypt and who had not claimed refugee
status; they were "warmly welcomed" in Eritrea, he said, with
no allegations of mistreatment of torture. In fact, he
noted, some had "asked to be sent back" rather than to stay
in Egyptian jails. The GOE also returned another 69 without
refugee identification cards who were arrested in the Sinai
apparently on their way to Israel, he said. El Maaty
provided an Arabic-language document that the MFA sent to
UNHCR detailing Egypt's actions regarding Eritrean migrants,
refugees, and asylum-seekers in recent months (full
translation at paragraph 7).
6. (SBU) Comment: The GOE has changed course from its
previous strategy of denying any returns of Eritreans to
arguing that those it returned do not deserve refugee
protections. GOE officials are not against protecting
Eritreans in need per se, but are concerned that Egypt would
be forced to host what they see as more than their fair
share. The GOE is seeking commitments from international
partners to resettle some of this Eritrean population, and we
have assured our interlocutors that the USG will consider any
resettlement requests referred by the UNHCR. However, the
GOE and UNHCR will need to balance between resettling enough
Eritreans to assuage GOE concerns and resettling so many that
more are "pulled" to Egypt on the hopes of being resettled to
a third country.
7. (SBU) Begin text of MFA letter to UNHCR (informal Embassy
1) Egypt is committed to its international obligations.
Hence, Egypt welcomed UNHCR representatives' visit to see
detained Eritreans in Aswan.
2) UNHCR representatives met with 130 Eritreans and 49
Ethiopians who praised Egyptian Authorities for treating them
3) Egypt confirms that there are no detained Eritreans in
other cities, which makes UNHCR's request to visit other
detention centers without merit. As for UNHCR's request to
meet with imprisoned Eritreans who have verdicts issued
against them for violating Egyptian law, it is being reviewed
by the Public Prosecutor,s office to ensure judicial
independence in Egypt.
4) Egypt has always been eager to work with UNHCR in a
cooperative and transparent manner, and has been praised for
such by UNHCR. However, we are concerned about not receiving
any feedback from UNHCR after their last visit to the
detained Eritrean group, which is an unjustified delay and
does not reflect the cooperative spirit that we hope would
exist between GOE and UNHCR especially since this issue has
sparked international reaction and the circulation of
inaccurate and undocumented information.
5) History proves that Egypt hosted foreigners - including
hundreds of thousands of refugees from 36 different
nationalities. The total number of registered refugees
according to UNHCR in Cairo is approximately 43,500.
6) Regarding the Eritreans who were detained after trying to
illegally enter Egypt, investigations were carried out to
determine their identities, how they arrived in the country
and the reason for illegally entering Egypt. These
investigations showed that a large number of the Eritreans
were fleeing military conscription in their country.
Additionally, some of them are economic migrants who are
looking for job opportunities in Israel and were using Egypt
as a transit country.
7) Investigations showed that the majority of the detained
group did not ask for asylum in Egypt. A small group applied
for asylum and was released to go to UNHCR. A final group of
Eritreans was allowed to be interviewed by UNHCR.
8) The numbers included in international reports were neither
accurate nor documented. During the investigations many of
the detained did not have identification and provided
Egyptian authorities with incorrect names and nationalities.
Statistics of the detained Eritreans:
- 318 were arrested while trying to infiltrate into Israel
and they are serving in prison as per judicial verdicts.
- 87 were arrested on the borders while trying to
infiltrate into Israel and were released after they proved to
hold UNHCR cards.
- 98 were arrested inside Egypt and stated that they were
looking for better economic conditions and escaping army
enrollment in their countries and feared to return and face
- 69 were arrested in Sinai and stated that they came from
Eritrea through Sudan and did not apply for asylum either in
Khartoum or Cairo. It was clear that their intentions were
to illegally enter Israel. They were deported to their
- 130 Eritreans and 49 Ethiopians were arrested in Aswan
and interviewed by UNHCR - as requested by the organization -
to determine their need for international protection.
- An unspecified number of those arrested in Egypt who
expressed their desire to acquire asylum in Egypt were
released to apply at UNHCR.
9) UNHCR is responsible for monitoring the member states'
implementation of the 1951 Refugees Convention and convincing
developed countries to cooperate in alleviating the burdens
and facilitating the resettlement processes in an expeditious
manner. This includes accepting more refugees for
resettlement as part of their international cooperation
10) More developed countries need to participate by
expediting resettlement procedures for individuals who
qualify as per the cooperation between Egyptian authorities
and UNHCR in third countries and to increase the number of
people they accept. This comes as part of the preamble of the
1951 Convention: &Considering that the grant of asylum may
place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries, and that a
satisfactory solution to a problem, of which the United
Nations has recognized the international scope and nature,
cannot be achieved without international co-operation.8
11) The protection of national security of a country is the
basis for international relations and any violations
committed by infiltrators who aim to flee to European
counties - under the veneer of seeking asylum - is not
acceptable, threatens security and needs to be firmly dealt
with according to the law.
End text of letter.