Human Rights Watch Decry Egyptian Authorities Over Refugees

Human Rights Watch (HRW) have stated in a report that the Egyptian authorities have failed to protect vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers from pervasive sexual violence, including by failing to investigate rape and sexual assault,

Human Rights Watch documented 11 incidents of sexual violence committed in Egypt between 2016 and 2022 against seven Sudanese and Yemeni refugees and asylum seekers, including one child. All six women, including a transgender woman, said that men raped them, and four said they were assaulted in two or more incidents, while the child’s mother said a man raped her 11-year-old daughter.

According to the rights organisation, three said the police refused to file incident reports, three said they were too intimidated to report the incident at all, and one woman said a police employee sexually harassed her when she tried to report a rape.

“Not only are refugee women and girls in Egypt living in vulnerable situations at risk of sexual violence, but the authorities seem to have no interest in protecting them or investigating the incidents, let alone bringing the rapists to justice,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities’ evident lack of interest in these cases leaves refugee women with no place to turn for justice.”

Sexual violence against women and girls in Egypt has been a pervasive problem in recent years as the government has largely failed to establish and carry out proper policies and investigation systems or enact necessary legislation to address the problem. In 2017, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey stated that Cairo, where more than a third of refugees in Egypt live according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), was the world’s most dangerous megacity for women.

Many refugee communities in Cairo and Giza are located in poorer neighborhoods and areas with high crime rates. This exacerbates the risks for refugee women and girls, whom attackers already appear to target based on their actual or perceived vulnerability linked to poverty and legal status.

Human Rights Watch interviewed six women and the mother of the child, three aid workers, and a lawyer, all in Egypt. In four cases, Human Rights Watch reviewed additional evidence including photographs and medical reports corroborating the accounts.

All six women said they experienced severe physical effects of the rape, such as bleeding or inflammation, difficulty walking, bruises, soreness, and other injuries. Three of the rapes resulted in pregnancy. Police referred none of the four who approached them to forensic or health care services.

Survivors also reported several psychological issues including sleeping problems, constant feelings of fear including of being followed, anger, frustration, depression, and memory issues. The transgender woman said she had suicidal thoughts.

Five of the women are Sudanese, two refugees and three asylum seekers registered with UNHCR. The other two are Yemeni, one a registered refugee and the other a registered asylum seeker. All arrived in Egypt between 2016 and 2020. One rapist was from Syria, another from Sudan, and the rest were Egyptian. At least one attack, in which the woman was abducted and repeatedly assaulted, appears to have been racially motivated. The survivor reported that the Egyptian rapist said, “let us enjoy this Black skin colour.”

The women all said they could not afford to hire a lawyer.

Egyptian authorities should perform their legal duties under domestic law and international human rights law and thoroughly investigate all rape allegations, Human Rights Watch said. This would include filling out a First Information Report, a written document prepared by police when they receive initial information or allegation that a crime has occurred, the first step to ensure access to justice.

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The authorities should also establish “firewalls” to separate enforcement of immigration laws from the need to protect people, including in the context of police response to violent crime. Refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants who are undocumented, or whose documentation has expired, should be able to report violent incidents to the police without fear of reprisals related to their legal immigration status.

As of August 2022, Egypt hosted more than 288,000 UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers, the majority from Syria or sub-Saharan Africa. Many others most likely remain undocumented.

Official numbers show that sexual and gender-based violence is a pervasive problem for Egypt’s refugee communities. In 2021, UNHCR said it provided gender-based violence response services to more than 2,300 registered refugees. The agency said that rape was the most common form of sexual and gender-based violence reported in 2019, with African nationals constituting the majority of survivors. During October 2019 alone, the agency received reports of 85 rapes and 30 other sexual assaults, 18 physical assaults, and six cases of psychological abuse.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the Egyptian Prosecutor General, Ministry of Interior, and the National Council for Women, on October 27, 2022, requesting figures on the sexual violence cases at courts and prosecution, procedures for registering complaints, and available services for survivors. At the time of writing, these officials had not responded. Human Rights Watch also wrote to UNHCR on October 13, 2022, requesting figures on sexual violence incidents reported to the agency and its partners and information about any trainings the agency may provide to the Egyptian police personnel. At the time of writing, UNHCR had not responded.

Egypt lacks gender-responsive policing. The authorities deploy female police to combat sexual harassment on the streets during holidays, but it is very rare to find a female officer in a police station. Poor police response to rape allegations and authorities’ failure to properly investigate allegations harms Egyptian women as well, but refugee women face additional obstacles.

“Asylum seekers and refugees fleeing persecution or other harm in their own countries should be protected in Egypt, not subjected to further abuse,” Fakih said. “The Egyptian government should overhaul its system for responding to sexual assault incidents, and make sure that sexual and reproductive care and services for sexual violence survivors are readily available, including emergency contraception.”

Egypt is a party to the 1951 United Nations and 1969 African refugee conventions. It has no national asylum system and does not send refugees to refugee camps. Most asylum seekers and refugees live in urban areas and UNHCR handles registration, documentation, and determination of refugee status for asylum seekers and refugees in Egypt.

The government allows those registered with UNHCR to regularize their residency via renewable six-month residence permits. However, ongoing barriers to registering with UNHCR and to obtaining or renewing residence permits have left many asylum seekers and refugees undocumented or with expired permits, increasing their vulnerability to exploitation, abuse, and deportation.

Human Rights Watch and other organisations have previously documented serious abuses against asylum seekers and refugees by Egyptian authorities. These include forced labour and physical abuse, in some cases during or following raids to check residency permits; arbitrary detention in poor conditions in Egyptian police stations; and deportations of asylum seekers to a country where they risked facing persecution, torture, or other serious human rights abuses, in violation of the principle of nonrefoulement under international law.

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Reports have also indicated that Black refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa experience racist harassment and violence by the Egyptian police as well as members of the public.

In addition to refugee survivors of sexual violence, Human Rights Watch interviewed three staff members of two international aid agencies as well as a lawyer with a local women’s rights organisation, who all work with survivors of sexual violence among refugee communities in Egypt. The three aid workers said that police stations are often not safe places for refugees because police can detain them if their residency permit is invalid, which is often the case due to renewal barriers.

They also said Egyptian police in most cases would ask the rape survivor to provide the full name of the rapist to agree to fill out an incident report. Filing a report is necessary, but not a guarantee, that the police would initiate an investigation.

One aid worker said that police sometimes do not even allow refugee women to enter the police station or require them to pay a bribe to enter.

A local rights group said that between 2020 and mid-2021, they documented eight cases of refugee and asylum-seeking women who were unable to file reports of rape incidents in five police stations in Cairo and Giza because police there demanded that survivors state the full name of the rapist, which they did not have. The group also said that authorities did not refer any of the eight women to medical or forensic services.

An Egyptian lawyer who specializes in sexual violence cases said that because refugees are usually without legal aid services, they are not able to follow other legal avenues to register a complaint when police are unwilling to file a report of a rape allegation.

In August 2017, June 2021, and February 2022, police did not allow one asylum seeker and two refugee women interviewed to report rape incidents in police stations in the Cairo neighborhoods of Ain Shams, the Tenth Neighborhood, and Dar al-Salam. Two of these women said that the police at these stations required them to provide the full name and address of the rapists to register their complaints, but both did not have this information, while the third one said that a police employee touched her on a sensitive part of her body, causing her to leave the police station without filing a report.

Another refugee woman, who said she was raped in October 2021, and the refugee mother of the girl who was raped in May 2020 at age 11, said they both did not attempt to report the incidents. The mother said she thought the police would ask her for evidence of the rape that she would not be able to provide, and the other woman said that her community members told her that the Egyptian police would not take her allegation seriously.

One aid worker said that their organisation never recommends to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) refugees who are sexually assaulted report incidents to the police, out of fear that police will instead arrest them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Human Rights Watch has previously documented cases of systematic arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and other abuses, including sexual violence, against LGBT people by Egyptian police and National Security Agency officials.

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The transgender woman refugee said that a group of Egyptian men raped her in a private car after abducting her at knifepoint in January 2022. She said she did not file a police report about the incident because of a previous experience in 2020 at a Cairo police station, where she was arbitrarily detained in a men’s cell on “morality” charges due to her gender identity, during which time a police employee sexually assaulted her. Human Rights Watch has previously documented that transgender women are likely to face sexual assault and other forms of ill-treatment when detained in men’s cells.

All six women interviewed and the mother of the child who was raped said they could not afford a private lawyer to represent them. The girl’s mother and another woman said they were unemployed, while the others worked in low-paid positions, such as domestic workers or henna makers. Three were single mothers. According to a 2018 UNHCR report, 35 percent of refugee women in Egypt were unemployed, while 49 percent were only employed occasionally on a seasonal basis.

Two of the women said they received threats from unknown phone numbers following the rape incidents, most likely from the attackers or people related to the attackers. Human Rights Watch reviewed screenshots shared by the women showing the threatening texts. Such messages would be valuable information in official investigations, but none were underway.

Some rape survivors among refugee women in Egypt experience repeated incidents of sexual assault due to their vulnerability linked to their legal and economic status, the impunity for attackers, and lack of protection, as was the case for four women interviewed. Another aid worker said that 20 of dozens of survivors she worked with over six months between 2021 and 2022 experienced multiple assaults.

None of the women received post-rape care at public health institutions, but all received some health care services and psychological counseling at an international aid agency, they said. They all said the agency’s response was helpful, but the services were not always quickly accessible.

One woman said that in June 2021 she approached a government hospital in Cairo, seeking health care after being raped. She said she was bleeding, but that a doctor at the reception told her “I am sorry, but I cannot help you.”

Two survivors and the mother of the child said the assaults resulted in pregnancy. Abortion at any stage is criminalised in Egypt, including in cases of rape. One adult survivor and the girl’s mother, however, were able to secure pills outside legal healthcare settings for medical abortions. The other woman learned about her pregnancy too late for a medical abortion and was also pressured by her mother not to go for an abortion.

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