The Refugees Platform in Egypt (RPE) received confirmed information about the forcible return of twenty-three irregular migrants – mostly Egyptians – after they were rescued from a merchant ship while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea towards the shores of Europe. According to information reviewed by RPE, the returned migrants were transferred and detained inside a military base in Port Said, affiliated with the Egyptian Navy, about a month ago.
While the search and rescue organizations working in the Mediterranean announced the incident and demanded the Maltese authorities to investigate the return process, the Egyptian government did not disclose any information about the returned migrants’ fate, health condition, place of detention, what measures taken with them or enable the UNHCR in Egypt to visit the detained refugees and asylum seekers.
On September 22, 2022, a migrant boat in distress in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea was about to sink, when the MSF rescue ship, Geo Barents, learned of the distress situation and sent an email, at 14:24 UTC reporting the distress case and location of the migrant boat to both the Maritime Search and Rescue Authorities in Rome and Malta and also to Alarm Phone, a hotline for migrants in need of rescue in the Mediterranean. Also, the Alarm Phone talked to the people in distress and received their location.
On the same day, at 20:53 UTC, Alarm Phone reported the distress case to the Maritime Search and Rescue Authorities (Italy and Malta), UNHCR (Italy and Malta), the shipping companies in the vicinity of the distress signal and a number of non-governmental organizations involved in search and rescue in the Mediterranean, explaining that there are five merchant ships in the same area and that the weather is getting worse.
Sea-Watch reconnaissance aircraft “Seabird 2” took a picture of the boat on September 23, revealing that the boat’s location was within the Maltese search and rescue area.
At 10:08 UTC, September 23, the “Seabird 2” took another picture of the merchant ships GAZ SERENITY, CHINAGAS LEGEND and HAFNIA TANGUS which were close to the location of the distressed boat. The SHIMANAMI QUEEN changed its course towards the distress site.
Four days later, on September 26, 2022, it was reported that 23 people had been rescued by the ship SHIMANAMI QUEEN, and Sea-Watch was informed that authorities in Malta had coordinated the dispatch of survivors to Egypt.
On September 26, Sea-Watch contacted the Egyptian Maritime Search and Rescue Center -JRCC Cairo – who confirmed, “We are aware of the case, at the moment we are waiting for the ship to arrive in Port Said, to send a naval ship to return people to Egypt.” He added: “I don’t know why JRCC Malta did not take the people”, “Malta made the decision,” he said.
The migrants arrived at Port Said port on September 27, after they were received at sea by an Egyptian ship before the merchant ship entered Egyptian territorial waters and transported them to a military naval base in Port Said.
What the authorities in Malta have done is an imposition of European hostile immigration policies towards people from the global south, which works to keep refugees away from European borders and deprive them of seeking asylum. This was evident in issuing instructions to the ship to transport the rescued people to Egypt, which is far away 760 nautical miles, and lacks an adequate national legal framework to protect refugees and asylum seekers, instead of taking them to European shores in Malta or Italy which were only 144 and 159 nautical miles away respectively. Malta’s instructions also exposed the migrants to great danger, especially as they had already been at sea for four days, in poor weather conditions and extremely limited supplies of food and water.
It is also a violation of the principle of non-refoulement of the 1951 Geneva Convention (Art. 33(1)), contracting states should not expel or return a person “to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. According to this principle, people rescued at sea must be taken to a place of safety “where the survivors’ safety of life is not threatened [and] where their basic human needs can be met”.
UNHCR in Egypt had asked the Egyptian government to transfer the refugees to a civilian detention center, which has not happened so far. It also tried to reach the migrants through lawyers, but they were unable to enter the military base after the base’s authorities prevented them and told them that investigations had not yet begun, a source at the Civil Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (CMRCC) told Mada Masr.
The Refugees Platform in Egypt (RPE) condemns the detention of migrants in military detention facilities without disclosing their fate, information, status, or measures taken against them, and holds the Egyptian authorities responsible for the safety of detained persons. RPE also urges authorities to enable detainees to meet lawyers and communicate with their families, access asylum procedures in Egypt, and to announce all information related to the detained migrants (their exact number, nationalities, ages, gender, and the reason for their detention so far).
RPE calls on the Egyptian government to disclose the fate of the detainees and to quickly release them, as there is no legal accusation against them. Article 2 of Law No. 82 of 2016 on combating irregular migration stipulates, “The smuggled immigrant shall not be liable for any criminal or civil liability for the crimes of smuggling migrants stipulated in this law, and the consent of the smuggled immigrant or the consent of the person responsible or his guardian shall not be considered in the crimes of smuggling migrants stipulated in this law”.