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UN Human Rights Chief Denounces Migrant Killings by Egyptian Forces

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Lisa Schlein

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay says migrants often lose their lives when traveling in over-crowded boats or trying to cross remote borders. But what is happening in Egypt, she says, is different and deplorable.

Her spokesman, Rupert Colville, says the high commissioner knows of no other country where government forces appear to have deliberately killed so many unarmed migrants and asylum seekers.

"It is a deplorable state of affairs, and the sheer number of victims suggests that at least some Egyptian security officials have been operating a shoot-to-kill policy," Colville said. "It is unlikely that so many killings would occur otherwise. Sixty killings can hardly be an accident."  

Colville says the killing of migrants began in the summer of 2007 after Egypt and Israel agreed to toughen border controls in the Sinai. He says the great majority of those killed are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, in particular from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia.

Nine fatal migrant shootings have been reported the Sinai during the first two months of this year.

Colville says at least 33 people were reported killed in the Sinai between July 2007 and 2008. After a six-month lull, he says the killings began again, with at least 19 more would-be migrants or refugees reportedly shot dead between May and December 2009.

"The victims include several women and at least one child. There are reports of other children being wounded," Colville said. "The fact that these shootings stopped for six months, and then resumed, strongly suggests that the killings follow a pattern that is not random."

Colville says all the killings have taken place on the Egyptian side of the border.

"We have not seen any reports of migrants actually being shot on the Israeli side. So those who crossed are not being shot," Colville added. "And, that I think is particularly unusual at this situation. ... When migrants unfortunately meet a violent death at a border, it is usually incoming. It is usually when they are on the way in somewhere, they are either stepping on mines or there is some incident. It is very rare that they are killed trying to leave somewhere."  

Colville says High Commissioner Pillay has been in contact with Egyptian officials about this issue on several occasions. He says she is calling for the Egyptian government to immediately order its security forces to use firearms only in strict compliance with international standards.

Pillay is urging Egypt to launch an independent and credible inquiry into the killings of so many individuals by state security forces during the past two-and-one-half years.

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