Unwelcome guests: Egypt’s failed experiment in refugee detention

One night in September, a boat carrying over 200 refugees was brought in to Alexandria by the Egyptian Navy under the halcyon orange of the port at Rasateen.

The refugees were hungry and tired, kept off the coast for days by the Mediterranean’s smugglers.

Once returned to shore, everyone on board would normally have been taken to a nearby police station — part of an informal detention estate along the North Coast which has held over 7,400 irregular migrants since the beginning of last year.

But these refugees were about to enter an experiment.

That night, September 17, Alexandria Governor Tareq Mahdy was inspecting Anfoushy Youth Center, a sports club run by the Youth and Sports Ministry, which was ready for the new arrivals. He was flanked by journalists, television cameras and police officers in full, crisp white regalia.

“We are dealing with humans,” he proclaimed. “They are not criminals.”

It was a show, and Mahdy likes shows. Recently he made sure he was filmed marching down the streets of downtown Alexandria barking at street vendors and pulling down shop displays — part of the state’s campaign against unlicensed street commerce. Now, it was the refugees’ turn.

“There will be breakfast, lunch and dinner as long as you’re here. Yes, you made a mistake, but on the humanitarian and moral level, you are our guests. And on the official governmental level… of course,” he said. “We are not here to punish you over the mistake you have made.”

Other government officials similarly marketed Anfoushy with the language of humanitarianism and due process.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Badr Abdel Aty referred to Anfoushy as a “rehabilitation center” where refugees would be “held for a transitional period.”

But when the bunting and red carpet were rolled up, Egypt’s refugees faced mixed governmental messages and blurred priorities.

“We are not responsible for dealing with people arrested while attempting illegal immigration,” a Youth and Sports Ministry representative told the privately owned news outlet Youm7 in early October. That role was up to the security forces, they added.

And while Mahdy was reportedly pushing to keep refugees there, staff at the youth center threatened to walk out if they stayed.

This dispute between ministry and governorate ultimately shut Anfoushy down at the beginning of November. Egypt’s first and only attempt at creating a detention center specifically for migrants had been scrapped within two months, apparently due to a lack of government consensus.

The remaining refugees were distributed between Alexandrian police stations once again.

Some praised the initiative while it lasted. But increased deportations and longer detentions — due to the time it takes to organize the deportations — coincided with the center’s brief existence.

Anfoushy seemed to change nothing. It became a place where Egypt’s opaque detention regime continued, and perhaps even escalated.

Guests became deportees. Food handouts soon turned into deportation orders.

Ramy, a 27-year-old Palestinian refugee from Syria (PRS), saw it from start to finish. He was on the first boat that Mahdy welcomed that night.

“The treatment here has been good,” he said in late September, speaking by telephone from Anfoushy. “But when we arrived, there were problems. Some people were beaten and the police were insulting us, using very bad words toward us.”

On the day of Anfoushy’s inauguration, 227 migrants were held there. Mohamed Kashef, who documents migrant detentions for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) in Alexandria, said that a few days later it was “almost full.”

Hundreds of refugees caught off the coast were brought to Anfoushy instead of police stations over the following two months. The youth center became the North Coast’s only migrant detention facility.

Two weeks after Ramy arrived, the Egyptian coastguard apprehended another boat, possibly saving the lives of those on board.

The migrants on board had left a week before. The smugglers held them “takhzeen” (in storage) for days without food or water, during which time the boat broke down off the coast near Egypt’s Saloum border with Libya. According to eyewitnesses, two people died during the trip — including a three-year-old boy from Gaza.

Youssef, a 23-year-old Palestinian-Syrian, remembers the relief when they came ashore.

“There was the media taking lots of pictures, filming us,” he says. “It was good treatment when we were first caught.”

But after spending weeks in detention, watching fellow refugees deported, stripped of their residency or moved to other police stations, he now calls it “propaganda.”

Kashef admits that despite its promises, Anfoushy is nothing new.

“It’s better than the police stations, but still, it’s the same system,” he explains. “The processing by State Security and the Interior Ministry hasn’t changed.”

Anfoushy was the first migrant-specific facility in a sprawling detention estate that includes over 60 prisons, police stations and detention facilities that have been used for detaining refugees. Usually, refugees are detained in similar settings to criminals or political prisoners — often in cells.

The government’s effort to develop a migrant-specific facility and the language it employed to describe it has several models across the Mediterranean.

In Turkey they are “guesthouses” and in Hungary, “guarded shelters.” Italy even called them “welcome centers.”

These initiatives have their root in a 2008 EU Return Directive, which formalized conditions for the detention of “third-country nationals” in Europe. Local law enforcement would apprehend detainees in accordance with national laws, but detention would have to take place in “specialized detention facilities.”

At first glance, these facilities appear to be a good thing, because they physically and legally distinguish detainees from criminals or political prisoners, as Mahdy did on that night in September.

But specialized facilities frequently come with their own pre-packaged humanitarian rhetoric, arguably masking their true purpose. Places like Anfoushy can also incentivize detentions, creating detention estates that hold refugees for extended periods, argues Global Detention Project (GDP) founder and Executive Director Michael Flynn, who spoke from his Geneva office.

A detention facility’s raison d’etre is to detain, after all.

A 2010 report by Euro-Mediterranean research network Migreurop claimed that the “proliferation of camps has come hand-in-hand with an increase in the length of detention, which often exceeds the time required to organize deportations.”

The report concludes that “the institutionalization of the detention of migrants is part of a deterrence policy which criminalizes those considered undesirable.”

Anfoushy, though short-lived, seems to have suffered from the systemic pitfalls Migreurop’s report refers to.

While the conditions inside Anfoushy were an improvement on those at police stations, refugees there often witnessed  higher numbers of  deportations and, as a result, longer detention periods. The reasons why are still unclear.

Since his detention, Ramy has been given a choice between going to prison or buying a plane ticket back to Syria, a place he fears for two reasons: The possibility of renewed military service in Syria’s Palestine Liberation Army (staffed by 1948 refugees, like himself), and the fact he already buried half of his family there after a regime airstrike killed his daughter, sister-in-law and cousin earlier this year.

“I can’t go back to Syria because I already buried my daughter there,” he says, on the verge of tears. “I can’t go back.”

Before Anfoushy opened, 367 refugees apprehended in several different incidents were deported from Egypt this year, according to EIPR figures.

In total, more than 260 refugees — including 83 refugees from Sudan and the Comoros Islands — were deported from Anfoushy in the two months it was operating.

Still, Kashef believes other factors are behind the increased deportations, not the facility itself: The end of the Mediterranean smuggling season, and the fact that the current government strategy hasn’t stopped the “crisis of illegal immigration.”

Earlier in the year, refugees were either quickly released with renewed residency or deported, depending on their nationality. But with unprecedented numbers of new migrants, the authorities increasingly turned to deportation alone.

Heba Mansour, an activist with Refugee Solidarity Movement, agrees that Anfoushy was a symptom of the system — particularly the vague deportation orders issued by State Security — rather than some new phenomenon.

“The percentage of deportations did not increase in relation to Anfoushy; it’s something else,” she asserts.

Lawyers, activists and, most of all, refugees like Ramy do not always know for sure why it is happening.

“When we were arrested, people from the Navy told us we’d go home and that we wouldn’t be arrested or anything,” he remembers. “Afterward we found this wasn’t true.”

Ramy has been in detention for two months.

Refugees in Karmouz police station

Now in Karmouz police station alongside 60 new arrivals waiting to be deported, he says he misses the sun, and freedom.

“Nothing the governor said was true,” he argues.

“When I first arrived, I thought: ‘No problem, I’ll be out. It’s just a matter of a few days’,” Ramy says, “Now I realize that I’m just staying here until I get my plane ticket back to Syria.”

Originally marketed as a place for Egypt’s “guests,” Anfoushy Youth Center became home to stories of fear and administrative detention, and the forcible return of refugees to any country that would take them.

In spite of Mahdy’s apparent goodwill, the opaque system of detentions and deportation orders has carried on as before — or possibly even escalated.

By the time its doors closed and the fanfare of that September evening faded, Anfoushy had become a damning example of how Egypt can treat its guests.

Tom Rollins  @rollinz
Tom Rollins is a Cairo-based freelance journalist.

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