People convicted of facilitating undocumented migration into, or out of, Egypt could soon face life imprisonment and fines of up to LE500,000, according to a migration bill approved by the National Security Committee on September 6.
The bill also proposes a fund to assist refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, while holding the state responsible for protecting them. The National Coordinating Committee for Preventing and Combatting Illegal Migration (NCCPIM) drafted the law over the past year.
People smugglers could be handed unspecified prison terms, according to a roundup of the draft law published by privately owned daily Al-Shorouk, as well as fines ranging from LE50,000 to LE200,000.
However, smugglers would face life sentences if anyone died during a journey that he or she ran or organized. The government also sets a higher fine for these cases, ranging from LE200,000 to LE500,000 or the equivalent of the smuggler’s profit. Those found to be complicit in any way could also face time in prison.
The 35-article bill will now head to another legislative reform stage before it can be reviewed by the Cabinet.
Naela Gabr, chairperson of the NCCPIM and a former diplomat, told Mada Masr that the key detail is the bill’s definition of people smuggling.
“For the first time, we have a definition of the crime of smuggling. We didn’t have this in Egyptian law before,” she said. “And, accordingly, we have the punishment — this is the most important thing.”
If caught, smugglers are typically detained and then released shortly afterwards, according to lawyers and refugees detained in the North Coast.
“Before, the government was not able to detain [smugglers] for more than a couple of hours,” Gabr claimed.
Before 2011, the Interior Ministry was compelled to “apply [the] emergency law against smugglers” by invoking an article dealing with threats to public safety, according to a 2014 investigation published in the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.
In addition, the bill is careful to describe undocumented migrants as “victims,” Gabr added.
Both reforms have been celebrated by civil society organizations and migration experts, although some questions remain about how the law will be implemented, and how the implications of these changes to language and legislation will be felt on the ground.
“This is a very good law, and helps Egypt meet its international obligations — Egypt is party to the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime,” explained Ayman Zohry, president of the Egyptian Society for Migration Studies.
One of the protocols included in that convention deals with migrant smuggling, and aims to “prevent and combat the smuggling of migrants, while protecting the rights of smuggled migrants.”
Mohamed Kashef, a documentation officer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) in Alexandria, also praised the law for criminalizing smugglers. However, he warned that beyond that, not much is clear.
“I don’t think [the government] will make a big change to the current system,” Kashef asserted, referring to the systematic detention of people who have been caught attempting to illegally enter the country.
Asked how the bill would affect these people, Gabr answered, “We consider them as victims, giving them all kinds of protection, respecting their rights and protecting witnesses” to smuggling crimes.
Particularly since 2013, when high numbers of Syrian refugees took to the Mediterranean from a coastline close to Alexandria, Egypt has held hundreds of people in administrative detention before deporting them.
In some cases, refugees and asylum seekers may have been deported back to unsafe origin countries, a clear violation of the principle of non–refoulement central to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
According to the Geneva-based Global Detention Project’s profile on Egyptian immigration detention practices, which was issued before the NCCPIM circulated the new bill, “Application of the law can vary considerably from case to case, depending on where a person is detained, the nationality of the detainee and the detaining authority in a particular case.”
“Authorities generally do not pursue criminal sanctions, instead opting to hold these people in a form of administrative detention until they are deported or their cases otherwise resolved by immigration authorities,” the report asserted.
Gabr claimed that under the new law, deportations would be “voluntary.”
“A migrant can contact their embassy if they so wish,” Gabr explained, “but a return will be a voluntary return.”