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Inside Egypt’s secret scheme to detain and deport thousands of Sudanese refugees

‘I pleaded with the soldiers, but they refused to help us.’

THOUSANDS of Sudanese refugees who escaped to neighbouring Egypt have been detained by Egyptian authorities in a network of secret military bases, and then deported back to their war-torn country often without the chance to claim asylum, an investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Refugees Platform in Egypt has found.

The pushbacks uncovered by reporters contravene refugee conventions that Egypt has ratified, and are being carried out as the EU has pledged billions of dollars to Cairo in exchange for the government curtailing migration to Europe, a deal that critics say could make European countries complicit in the abuses taking place.

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About this investigation:
Last summer, the Refugees Platform in Egypt, a civil society organisation that defends human rights, contacted The New Humanitarian to share evidence that the Egyptian military was carrying out large-scale deportations of Sudanese refugees. Reporters substantiated the allegations by interviewing dozens of refugees, lawyers, and right groups, obtaining documents from inside secretive government agencies, and through open source investigative techniques.

The pushbacks are also being enforced amid a worsening of the year-long war between the Sudanese army and its former ally, the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The fighting is expanding into new parts of the country, leaving tens of thousands of people dead, and triggering warnings of a looming famine.

Hassan, who asked for his name to be changed, like all of the Sudanese refugees quoted in this story, said he escaped the capital city, Khartoum, earlier in the year after his house was invaded and his brother was killed by RSF fighters. Following his deportation, he said he was “unsure if there is still a home awaiting” him.

Sudan’s conflict has created one of the world’s largest displacement crises, with nearly nine million people uprooted over the past year. Two million people have fled to neighbouring states, including more than half a million who have crossed into Egypt.

Egyptian authorities have taken various measures to restrict Sudanese from entering legally, despite an agreement guaranteeing freedom of movement between the countries. Most refugees are now forced to use smugglers to enter, even as they risk being detained for irregular entry or injured in dangerous mountain passages.

The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Global Detention Project have both documented pushbacks, yet reporters from The New Humanitarian and the Refugees Platform are the first to comprehensively investigate how the deportation system is operating, the facilities being used for detention, and how refugees are mistreated.

Over six months, reporters spoke to 15 deported refugees and interviewed Egyptian lawyers, government officials, and local rights organisations. Reporters also obtained internal police, military, and public prosecutor records, and used photographs, videos, and satellite images to confirm the presence of half a dozen military bases whose locations are mostly unknown and which are being used as detention centres without legal approvals.

The interviews and documents reveal a systematic, nationwide effort to deny Sudanese refugees the right to claim asylum. The campaign involves multiple components of the Egyptian security apparatus as well as other agencies of the government, which had not responded to requests for comment by the time of publication.

Some refugees told reporters that Egyptian border guard forces had shot at them in desert areas, and then arrested and deported them without any legal process. Others said they were rounded up in towns and cities and accused by security authorities of spurious offences, including smuggling, being part of a criminal smuggling group, or “causing serious harm” to Egypt.

Refugees and lawyers said children, elderly people, and individuals who had suffered serious injuries during their journeys into the country were among those deported, as were Sudanese who had registered with UNHCR. In one case, a lawyer described an individual who was deported despite having refugee status.

The military bases that reporters geolocated include places where Egyptian rights defenders and critics have died or been disappeared in the past by security agencies. Refugees described facilities with rodent infestations and overflowing sewage. One refugee said they were detained for 70 days in a base and allowed out just once.

“All of the prisoners’ mental states were severely affected,” said 31-year-old Mahmoud, who was detained on a Cairo-bound bus earlier this year having escaped fighting in Khartoum. “For some, the prospect of deportation to a country at war was better than remaining in such dire circumstances.”

Click on the red dots in the map below to see the six military bases verified by reporters:

Dangerous journeys and mass deportations

Egypt shares deep historical ties with Sudan and has long been home to millions of Sudanese migrants. The government has taken the side of the army in the current conflict, yet refugees have faced growing hostility by Egyptian politicians and members of the public amid a deepening economic crisis in the country.

Entry restrictions for Sudanese have been tightened over the past year. Initially, men between 16 and 50 were prevented from entering unless they had a visa issued by Egyptian consulates in Sudan. This policy was then extended to cover all Sudanese citizens, most of whom turned to smugglers due to long visa processing times.

Smugglers take refugees through the desert, on a long, bumpy trip that crosses mountains, rocky outcroppings, and military checkpoints. Refugees are packed by smugglers onto the back of pick-up trucks, having to cling onto ropes to avoid falling out and use surgical masks to keep out the choking dust.

A photo of a smuggling route taken by a refugee who asked not to be identified.
A photo of a smuggling route taken by a refugee who asked not to be identified.

Read more: Travel agents and fast-track visas

It is unclear how many refugees have been detained and deported for irregular entry over the past year, though the Global Detention Project and UNHCR have recorded or reported on thousands of cases between them.

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In addition to the 15 deported refugees who spoke to The New Humanitarian and the Refugees Platform, reporters were able to confirm two dozen more cases through interviews with the relatives and friends of deported refugees, and another 44 cases through a database shared by a lawyer from the Egyptian Commision for Rights and Freedom, a civil society group that monitors human rights violations.

Reporters also obtained internal police, military, and public prosecutor files on nearly 200 other refugees who were arrested and detained by authorities. One file described the arrest of 16 people, including a one-year-old child; another detailed the detention of 14 people, including a girl aged 10. Most arrests targeted Sudanese citizens and Egyptian drivers, though one case involved six people from South Sudan.

The majority of the cases investigated by reporters involved refugees detained in southern Egypt, either shortly after crossing the border or after arriving in the first main towns in the south. However, reporters also spoke to the relatives of several refugees who were arrested while conducting their daily business in the northern cities of Cairo and Alexandria and later deported, suggesting the crackdown is nationwide.

“This feeling is looming over us,” said 34-year-old Ahmed, who entered Egypt irregularly in December and has been staying in Cairo for the past five months. “I rarely get out of the house. I only make short trips to get food and then return promptly.”

Refugees said authorities carried out mass deportations, with buses taking hundreds of people to border crossings. Three said border guards or aid workers gave them bags of food, drinks, and hygiene supplies. The bags had printed logos of the World Food Programme and USAID, according to pictures shared with reporters. Refugees also said the towns they were deported to lacked accommodation and basic services.

“When they told us that we would be deported to Sudan, the children cried because the soldiers lied to them and they were afraid of returning in light of the war,” said Nasifa, who was deported in late January. She described having an asthma attack while detained in a ramshackle military base and said soldiers did not bring her medicine.

Arbitrary detentions and forced returns of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are common in Egypt, with previous campaigns by security forces also targeting citizens of Eritrea and South Sudan. Human rights groups say the crackdowns are hard to document because authorities do not publicly release detention and deportation data.

The campaigns have been carried out while government and security forces have received support from European states. The support is motivated by Europe’s desire to stem migration from the country, which is a transit route for individuals wanting to cross the Mediterranean, and is also producing a growing number of its own migrants.

Experts said state abuses against refugees and migrants are likely to increase as a result of the new $8 billion EU funding package, which includes more than $200 million for migration control. The deal is part of a part of a broader EU approach of partnering with third countries – many with poor human rights records – to reduce migration.

“These agreements are unlikely to stem the flow [of migrants],” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian journalist and scholar who researches the country’s military and security services. “Instead, they may exacerbate casualties and further empower the already dominant military, which lies at the root of many issues in Egypt.”

Reporters contacted the EU’s external affairs spokesperson on 24 April, asking for comment on the findings of the investigation and whether it would impact the new partnership with Egypt, but did not receive a response.

Torture, car chases, and rapid returns

The refugees detained in southern Egypt are handled differently depending on whether they are intercepted close to the border or arrested in towns and cities, according to witness testimonies, interviews with lawyers and government officials, and internal military, police, and public prosecutor documents.

Refugees are especially vulnerable to abuse if they are intercepted near border areas, which are under military jurisdiction across Egypt. The areas are patrolled by border guard forces, which are a key part of the Egyptian military. Access, including for humanitarian and human rights groups, requires permits from military authorities.

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Several lawyers and border guard sources said Sudanese refugees detained in these areas are rapidly deported by border guard forces without being registered, and without any legal process. The sources said this is not in keeping with how border guards used to handle refugees and migrants intercepted in border areas.

“Previously, deportations occurred following the conclusion of a military trial and referral to the appropriate authority,” said a military officer who has served in the border guards for five years. “However, we are witnessing a new trend where individuals detained are neither officially registered nor presented before the court.”

Four refugees told reporters that border guard forces ambushed them in the desert, with three recounting being pursued by military vehicles, and three claiming that guards shot at their vehicles or in the air, causing panic. Two refugees also described their Egyptian drivers being tortured and beaten by border guards after being caught.

“I said to the girls with me: ‘You experienced the war and saw atrocities, so do not look at what is happening’.”

Amina, a refugee who crossed the border in February with 13 others, said her smuggler driver crashed into a tree after border guards engaged them in a 30-minute car chase through mountains. Amina said the driver of the vehicle fled after the crash, but his teenage assistant was caught and then tortured by a border guard officer. The officer forced the teenager to remove his clothes, kicked him, hung him with a rope, and penetrated his rectum with a stick until he bled, Amina said.

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“I said to the girls with me: ‘You experienced the war and saw atrocities, so do not look at what is happening’,” Amina told reporters. She added that the border guards insulted the group of refugees before taking them into detention.

Amina’s experience is unlikely to be unique. The New Humanitarian and the Refugees Platform analysed local media reports, finding 13 car crashes mostly involving Sudanese nationals travelling on the same southern roads that refugees are taking. More than 160 people were injured and 20 died in the crashes – which occurred between May 2023 and February 2024 – though the reports all describe the incidents as accidents.  

Reporters also obtained internal police and public prosecutor documents that detailed three car crashes, one of which claimed several lives. The survivors mentioned in the documents do not accuse border guards of causing the crashes, but the cases have not been transparently investigated and unidentified bodies are not being handled with care, according to a well-placed lawyer in Aswan, the largest city in southern Egypt.

The lawyer, who asked not to be named, citing the risk of reprisals from the government, said civilian police and public prosecutors have been asked to investigate certain crashes but lack the authority to do so when they occur in areas where the military has jurisdiction.

Investigations and ‘false accusations’ 

Refugees who pass through border areas undetected still risk being intercepted. This can happen on the streets, at bus and train stations in southern cities like Aswan, or during the 1,000-kilometre journey north to Cairo or Alexandria, where refugees can access UNHCR offices to register themselves.

Unlike those intercepted along the border, refugees arrested in these areas are not immediately deported. However, internal government documents and interviews with refugees show how they face Kafkaesque investigations without access to lawyers and which result in deportation no matter the outcome.

Reporters obtained files on nearly 200 refugees who faced investigations. The files include internal arrest reports; investigations conducted by police, border guards, the Mabahith secret police agency, and the Department of Combating Illegal Migration and Human Trafficking; and decisions taken by public prosecutors.

One of the many internal documents on apprehended Sudanese refugees that reporters obtained from various government agencies.
One of the many internal documents on apprehended Sudanese refugees that reporters obtained from various government agencies.

In the investigation documents, refugees are often accused of being part of smuggling groups or are labelled as “suspected outlaws” responsible for “causing serious harm to the dignity and reputation of Egypt”. The language and allegations are identical in several different documents, which local lawyers said indicates that the charges are premeditated.

Many of the refugees were brought in front of a public prosecutor, yet guilty verdicts appear to be rare: In 34 cases where reporters obtained documents detailing public prosecutor decisions, the proceedings all ended with prosecutor statements calling for the release of the accused because of a lack of evidence.

“We’ve endured injustice and false accusations without the opportunity to defend ourselves or contact a lawyer. This is despite authorities being aware of the perilous journey we have undertaken in pursuit of asylum in Egypt.”

Following the release decisions, refugees are handed over to security agencies, according to lawyers and refugee testimonies. They then have deportation orders processed against them anyway, raising questions as to why they are being put through the proceedings in the first place.

Throughout the process, refugees are consistently denied legal defence and the chance to initiate asylum procedures, said Mahmoud, the 31-year-old from Khartoum. He said he was detained in mid-January and accused by secret police of smuggling offences.

“We’ve endured injustice and false accusations without the opportunity to defend ourselves or contact a lawyer,” Mahmoud told reporters. “This is despite authorities being aware of the perilous journey we have undertaken in pursuit of asylum in Egypt.”

Since his deportation, Mahmoud said he has been “tormented” by the question of why refugees fleeing a war zone are being punished. Still, he said he considers himself fortunate to have survived, given that others endured “even harsher experiences along the same journey”. 

Rodents, sewage, and stifling heat

Reporters identified six of the main military bases where refugees are being detained. Some former detainees provided coordinates of the facilities, while in other cases reporters matched Google Earth and Maxar satellite images with open source photographs and videos of the sites, and with verbal descriptions from refugees.

The facilities verified are all in military-controlled bases in the southern Aswan and Red Sea governorates. Five are operated by border guard forces under the control of the Ministry of Defence, and one is operated by a police unit under the Ministry of Interior. 

None of the bases are designated as official detention centres by the Ministry of Interior, which is a legal requirement, according to three local lawyers who asked not to be named because of the risk of reprisals. They said the detentions are therefore illegal under Egyptian law.

Satellite images for four of the facilities show pick-up vehicles of the kind that refugees said are used by smugglers. In one facility, over 200 cars are visible, while in pictures of another – taken in December and March – the number of cars increases. The images support the conclusion that the facilities are housing refugees and that border guards are engaged in large-scale anti-refugee and anti-smuggling operations.

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All the former detainees said they were denied access to lawyers and UNHCR workers, and that security forces requested their phones, though some were able to hide them. Only one said they were able to speak to relatives during their detention period.

Videos, photographs, and refugee testimonies reveal harrowing conditions inside the bases, which The New Humanitarian and the Refugees Platform are identifying in order to provide information that could be useful for the relatives of missing refugees.

Nasifa, the refugee deported in January, stayed in a place that reporters verified as the Aswan border guard base. She said refugees were held in a part of the facility that looked like “a horse stable”, and that space was so cramped that new arrivals were put out in a cold courtyard. Among the detained refugees was a woman suffering from bleeding, another with high blood pressure, and a man with throat cancer, Nasifa said.

Amina, the refugee involved in the car crash, said she stayed in a “very bad” facility verified by reporters as the Abu Ramad military base. Amina said there was no light, insufficient water, and a bathroom without a door. She said she asked for diabetes medication from soldiers but was not given any during her detention.

Three refugees said they stayed inside a facility that reporters verified as the al-Shallal base, which is managed by a police unit known as the Central Security Forces. They said the base is being used for refugees detained outside of border areas, and that brief family visits were occasionally allowed.

Screenshots from a social media video that was posted online by a detainee which have been arranged to show a view of the inside of the Abu Simbel military base.
Screenshots taken from a video of the Abu Simbel military base that was posted online by a detainee. The credit has been removed for security reasons.

Mahmoud, the refugee accused of smuggling, said he stayed in al-Shallal for 70 days. He said hundreds of people were packed into small spaces, and that many were suffering from respiratory infections and skin diseases due to outbreaks of lice and ticks. “It is like a grave,” Mahmoud said. “The lack of sunlight, coupled with the closed doors, created an environment conducive to the spread of diseases.”

Another facility identified and geolocated by reporters is Abu Simbel military base. Former detainees, lawyers, and local government officials said refugees are transferred to the base from other military camps ahead of them being deported through the nearby Ashkit border crossing.

Nasifa said she was transferred to Abu Simbel from the Aswan border guard base. She described overcrowding, sewage overflowing in front of a kitchen, and women and children with food poisoning. She said a pregnant woman in labour was left on the floor for 90 minutes without medical help. The day after her arrival she said buses brought dozens more refugees to the camp, all of whom were awaiting deportation.

Nowhere to go

Interviews with refugees and other sources identified two key places where refugees are being deported from: the Ras Hadaraba crossing, for refugees intercepted in the disputed Hala’ib Triangle; and Ashkit, a busy crossing where deported refugees are sent to the adjacent town of Wadi Halfa.

Seven refugees said they were transported to the border crossings alongside hundreds of others and then handed over to Sudanese authorities. Their accounts are backed up by a social media video of a mass deportation that has been geolocated and verified by reporters.Read more: How reporters verified footage of a mass deportation

Two refugees said local aid workers gave them humanitarian support on the border, though others said they were given no assistance, and some said they were even asked to pay for their own deportation by Egyptian authorities.

Several refugees deported to Wadi Halfa said they stayed put in the border town, which has an Egyptian consulate and has attracted tens of thousands of people seeking visas over the past year. Several dozen have succumbed to dehydration, heat stroke, and infections while waiting for visas, according to local hospital records shared with reporters by a human rights activist.

Amina, the refugee involved in the car crash, said she was deported via Ras Hadaraba in early March. She said Sudanese soldiers picked her and 200 others up at the border, and then drove them to the eastern city of Port Sudan in tractors usually used to transport cattle. They were given sandwiches and water on arrival in Port Sudan but had no accommodation, Amina said.

Despite her ordeal, Amina did not stay in Port Sudan for long. She soon contacted smugglers and set off again for Egypt, this time successfully reaching Cairo. She said Egyptian soldiers had even encouraged her to make the journey again: For every 30-40 vehicles that cross the border, “we catch three or four”, the soldiers told her.

After being deported to Sudan’s remote northern border region in late January, Nasifa told reporters she had no way of returning to her home state of Al-Jazira, where RSF forces have reportedly killed hundreds of civilians in recent months. Yet she said risking her life with smugglers in the desert to get back into Egypt isn’t an option either.

“The situation in Sudan might be dire enough to make survival impossible,” Nasifa told The New Humanitarian and the Refugees Platform. “But nobody would venture out under these circumstances.”

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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The New Humanitarian puts quality, independent journalism at the service of the millions of people affected by humanitarian crises around the world. Find out more at www.thenewhumanitarian.org.

By SARA CRETA and NOUR KHALIL

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