Europe’s migration trade with Egypt

Long before the advent of the “migration crisis,” Italy signed a series of deals with Libya’s Colonel Muammar Qadhafi designed to stop thousands of mostly African migrants from reaching the shores of Europe.

Between 2006 and 2011, Qadhafi took billions in development money and, in return, enforced Europe’s borders. Tens of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants were held in detention facilities where human rights groups reported physical abuse, torture and, in some cases, the use of lethal force.

Since 2009, Italy has forcibly returned boats without screening refugees or asylum seekers, and Libya, in turn, deported thousands further south, often abandoning people in the desert at the Niger border, or chartering flights back to their countries of origin. Qadhafi used these deals as leverage, threatening that Europe might “turn black” if the money stopped flowing.

In 2012, Amnesty International argued that Italy had “at best, ignored the dire plight of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. At worst, it has shown itself willing to condone human rights abuses in order to meet national political self-interest.”

In other words, a kind of trade-off: border control for human rights.

A series of policy briefs and leaked documents suggest European officials may now be striking similar deals across Mediterranean migration routes. There’s talk of detention facilities in Belarus, training workshops with Eritrea’s judiciary, and even security equipment bound for Sudan, which not long ago transformed its notorious Janjaweed militia — responsible for war crimes in Darfur — into “Rapid Support Forces,” reportedly involved in arrests and violent pushbacks of migrants on the Sudanese-Libyan border.

Egypt-EU cooperation is following a pattern of using development projects to influence migration management.

Egypt, too, has become a priority for European officials, despite its record of human rights abuses and ongoing repression of civil society.

A recently leaked non-paper from the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s foreign affairs department, provides the clearest indication yet that the EU is planning on increasing migration policy cooperation with Cairo. And while non-papers reflect non-binding recommendations rather than concrete policy-making, the EEAS leak is the most detailed document to date setting out what future cooperation might look like.

Shared interests

The EEAS leak acknowledges that, while it’s “important not to exaggerate the risk of a growing flow of migrants directly from Egypt,” because of its distance from Europe and the costs involved in getting there, particular attention should be paid to whether or not a growing number of Egyptians arrive in the future.

The document notes that 2016 saw “a significant increase, though from a low baseline, of irregular movements … from Egypt towards Europe,” but warns that poverty, poor infrastructure and dwindling work and educational opportunities, compounded by a struggling economy, means “the risk of more Egyptians being forced to migrate is greater.”

There has been speculation Europe may try to strike a similar deal to the one with Turkey last year, particularly after German Chancellor Angela Merkel recommended pursuing “similar deals with other countries, such as in North Africa, in order to get better control over the Mediterranean sea refugee routes.” Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière stated during a visit to Cairo in March that his government “will avoid” a new Libyan transit route from Egypt.

But Egypt-EU cooperation, at least for now, is broadly following a pattern of using development projects to influence migration management.

So far, Brussels has signed off on one Egypt-specific program under the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa: Enhancing the Response to Migration Challenges in Egypt (ERMCE). This 11.5-million euro program is meant to bolster host communities and infrastructure, while also targeting migration-prone communities in Egypt. It includes 1.5 million euros for “strengthening Egypt’s migration governance” through capacity-building, with government agencies working on migration management, as well as another 9.8 million euros for “increasing protection and socio-economic opportunities for current or potential migrations, returnees and refugees in Egypt” in an attempt to “influence migration choices.”

ERMCE is currently on hold due to disagreements about the exact contents of the program, according to European and Egyptian officials familiar with the project. Egypt cannot receive any other funding packages under the EUTF until the project begins.

Cairo is also due to receive support from the so-called Madad Fund — the EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis — which specifically targets neighboring countries hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees. However, an EU spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on whether the project was already active.

Many of the non-paper recommendations for future cooperation follow the same logic: by improving conditions in Egypt, fewer refugees and migrants will come. But there are also new, unprecedented suggestions.

The document discusses a possible formal agreement to share information and surveillance with the EU’s border control agency FRONTEX, police unit EUROPOL and border guard network SEAHORSE. Talks are already underway to involve Egypt in the EUNAVFOR MED Sophia naval operation, meant to disrupt smuggling off the coast of Libya. There’s also talk of a “pilot project” for Egyptian migrants to reach Europe legally alongside “practical arrangements for the return of irregular Egyptian migrants from the EU.” Meanwhile, the “possibility of returning third-country nationals to Egypt should also be considered.”

Europe would likely have to offer Egypt a great deal for some of these proposals to be implemented, but they reflect the country’s newfound priority status in the Mediterranean.

Egypt can help, if you help Egypt

There was unprecedented focus in 2016 on Egypt’s place in Mediterranean migration — partly because of a noticeable increase in arrivals in Italy in the first half of the year, but also as a series of major migrant tragedies either took place off Egypt’s north coast or involved boats that began their journeys in Egypt.

The Rashid tragedy in late September claimed the lives of as many as 200 refugees and migrants, who drowned while Egyptian authorities were perilously slow to act, which grieving families and fishermen-turned rescuers all confirmed.

Right after Rashid, the head of Egypt’s National Coordinating Committee for Combatting and Preventing Illegal Immigration (NCCPIM), Naela Gabr, sent a letter to all members of the European Parliament (which was also published on the Foreign Ministry’s blog). The tragedy “stirred a torrent of thoughts and emotions, underlying the gravity and complexity of illegal migration,” Gabr wrote. “Egypt was one of the first countries to recognize … the need to inject a greater sense of urgency to curtail [migration].”

The letter was, of course, an advertisement as well as a policy briefing.

Egypt is using migration management to gain funding and international legitimacy.

Just a month earlier, Egypt’s Assistant Foreign Minister for Multilateral Affairs, Hesham Badr, had presented the same talking points at an August 30 meeting of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs (ATEF). Again, Egypt was presented as a country with crucial frontline experience in handling migration flows, one that is ready to “work closely” with the EU in the future.

Badr listed facts and figures — not all of them accurate — claiming there were 5 million refugees and migrants in Egypt, including 500,000 Syrians, who cost the government around US$300 million each year. The message: Egypt can help, if you help Egypt.

“Egypt is very much using the number of migrants, flagging it as a threat,” says Marie Martin, Migration and Asylum Program Officer with the Euro-Mediterranean Network for Human Rights in Brussels, drawing parallels with the way Qadhafi’s pre-2011 “threat” to Europe ensured the money kept coming.

“What we see from Egypt at the moment is a real willingness from them to beef up their international profile,” using migration management in a push to gain funding as well as much-needed international legitimacy, Martin adds.

At the forefront of that policy push is the NCCPIM, an inter-ministerial committee originally set up in 2014 that has recently drafted an anti-smuggling law that will purportedly decriminalize migrants and outlaw human trafficking for the first time in Egyptian law.

The NCCPIM’s Gabr told the German newspaper Junge Welt that the committee provides “an example” to other African countries, “showing the expertise of Egypt,” pointing to international migration workshops hosted by the committee as well as a new anti-smuggling law meant to decriminalize undocumented migrants that was co-drafted by the NCCPIM.

“Regional cooperation is our strategy,” Gabr added.

Germany, an accessory to repression? 

Egypt has an important role to play because of its historical role as a conduit between the African continent, the Mediterranean and the Arab world, and forms a leading role in major multilateral deals like the Khartoum Process. Several embassies now host migration-focused liaison officers in Cairo, tasked with monitoring trends and implementing member state-funded projects on the ground, and the EU recently deployed a European Migration Liaison Officer to Egypt along with a list of 12 other “priority third countries.”

But the EU is also pushing Egypt as a partner in future efforts to limit flows from Libya, where Europeans are already training coastguards and looking for “concrete operational measures to stem migration from Libya to Europe,” according to European Council President Donald Tusk.

Last week, the EU’s Maltese Presidency controversially suggested suspending the policy of non-refoulement, which prohibits returning refugees or asylum seekers to places where they’re liable to face persecution. With some in Brussels clearly running out of patience, Egypt might provide the much-needed support they are seeking.

However, Germany has been one of the more vocal countries advocating for more cooperation with North Africa.

By extending its development cooperation programs to improve living conditions and create jobs, Germany hopes to encourage would-be migrants to stay in Egypt. But controversially, police cooperation has been a key pillar of Egyptian-German relations since 2015.

Until now this cooperation has mostly targeted border and air control security through workshops organized by the German Federal Police and training programs focused on airport security. A series of training programs for Egyptian police and intelligence units, nominally for fighting organized crime and terrorism, have been in motion since 2015, although a formal security arrangement was only signed in July 2016.

The domestic police and intelligence agency BKA (the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation) has been involved in the police cooperation program, training one member of Egypt’s National Security Sector[1] (NSS) in 2016 and two NSS officers in 2015. Officials of Egypt’s General Intelligence Services (GIS) were invited to training programs in Germany and attended at least one information exchange meeting with German officials.

Aid groups and NGOs warn the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are increasingly at risk.

Amid evidence of systematic human rights abuses, several opposition MPs in the German parliament strongly oppose police cooperation with Egypt. Leftist MP Andrej Hunko accused the German government of being an “accessory to repression,” calling for an immediate end to security cooperation.

And while the government acknowledges Egypt’s human rights landscape is “concerning,” even referring to “credible reports [of] torture and abuse in police custody,” the support for enhanced cooperation by the German government means that officials in Berlin will likely continue to advocate behind the scenes for working with Egypt in order to reduce migration flows in the Mediterranean. There are border control workshops in the pipeline that will likely focus more on migration management.

Evidently, migration cooperation is just one element of a burgeoning Egypt-EU relationship that is concerning policymakers, aid organizations and human rights groups in Brussels.

In December, more than a dozen MEPs wrote a letter to several high-ranking EU figures, including foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, expressing “great alarm at Egypt’s accelerating repression and silencing of civil society organizations, including prominent Egyptian human rights defenders.”

“Egypt’s policy of cracking down on civil society violates the very foundation of EU-Egypt cooperation,” the letter added, citing an article in the 2004 Egypt-EU Association Agreement meant to promote “respect of democratic principles and fundamental human rights.”

But aid groups and civil society organizations warn that the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are increasingly at risk.

Egyptian officials are already citing an expanded campaign of arrests on migration routes as proof that they’re doing their bit. Last year saw a significant rise in arrests, with Egypt’s Armed Forces touting the arrest of 12,192 people in 434 incidents throughout 2016. According to the UNHCR, in the first eight months of 2016, Egypt detained 4,106 migrants on the North Coast for attempting to leave the country irregularly — an 85 percent increase compared with the year before.

While UNHCR-registered detainees are in most cases released, UNHCR data suggests the majority of refugees and migrants transiting for the first time through Egypt who are then detained are at risk of protracted detention effectively designed to enforce deportations. Lawyers familiar with these cases question whether the choice between indefinite detention and return is really a choice at all.

Any deal that sees non-nationals deported from Europe to Egypt, as proposed in the EEAS leak, might also leave undocumented migrants vulnerable to detention and deportation.

The NCCPIM’s Gabr insists Egypt only carries out “returns on a voluntary basis,” but admits that the anti-smuggling law meant to decriminalize irregular migrants may not stop deportations “if there is another crime,” such as illegal entry to or exit from Egypt, and so deportations will almost certainly continue, if not expand.

“The legal framework in Egypt now is absolutely not suitable for safeguarding migrants and refugees’ rights,” argues EuroMed’s Martin. “[But] the rights of migrants and refugees are constantly, relentlessly bargained on for other purposes that often have more to do with diplomatic ties between regional powers. It puts the lives of these people at risk.”

[1] The German government uses this term for the Egyptian unit involved in the program in all official correspondences.

Sofian Philip Naceur 

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