Eritreans have come to reside in Egypt in recent years through various circumstances: trying (and failing) to be smuggled into Israel; trying (and failing) to be smuggled across the Mediterranean to Europe; and simply seeking safe haven in Egypt. Among those who had sought refuge in Israel, many are survivors of torture at the hands of the extortionists in Sinai.
Many in all three categories have been detained in harsh conditions within detention centers, police jails and prisons. The fate of those in detention may turn on whether they had first registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in another country, such as Ethiopia or Sudan. If so, they may be released, and they may work in the informal economy (they may not legally work in Egypt); but refugees may not leave the country without government permission. If they had not previously registered with UNHCR, they may not now register, they will not be released from detention, and they stand to be deported to a country willing to receive them, which can include Eritrea. Deportation to Eritrea could spell torture or death there. But through the heroic efforts of a few humanitarians, thousands — including Sinai survivors — have been moved from detention in Egypt to Ethiopia.
At this time, the category of those bound for Europe has become particularly visible. Starting in mid-2015, the notorious abuses of migrants and refugees by smugglers, militias and others in Libya caused greater numbers than before to seek to cross the Mediterranean to Europe from Egypt rather than from Libya, even though the crossing from Egypt was longer and more perilous. But in late 2016 the Egyptian government began intercepting and detaining smugglers, traffickers, migrants and refugees who attempted that crossing. As a consequence, many Eritreans who had come to Egypt with a view to migrating onward to Europe became trapped there. As of August 2017, those not deported and not detained numbered approximately 8,000 and constituted the fourth largest refugee group in Egypt. Although the fortunes of those not detained appear to be better than those of Eritreans in Sudan and Libya, they reportedly suffer regular verbal harassment and physical violence, as well as labor exploitation.
The operations of foreign and domestic human rights NGOs are severely restricted in Egypt; and journalists as well as human rights activists are frequently imprisoned or killed. Thus monitoring, intervention and commentary with respect to the Eritrean refugees there is challenging. During the current period of authoritarian governance and of acute internal discord regarding fundamental issues of democracy, pluralism, security and economic well-being, no widespread popular or governmental movement to protect the rights or security of sub-Saharan refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt is apparent.
During the years that Eritreans were seeking to cross the border from Sinai to Israel, Egyptian border police would often seek to stop groups by unnecessarily shooting into them, wounding or killing some, and then jailing the survivors in Sinai.