A conscious coupling: The EU-Egypt ‘strategic and comprehensive partnership’

On 17 March, the European Union (EU) and Egypt entered into a new agreement to reduce irregular migration to Europe, increase stability in North Africa and support Egypt’s struggling economy. Egypt is a vital partner in achieving the EU’s migration management vision, as a major host country for migrants close to Europe’s borders, now more than ever with the protracted war in Sudan. It is also one of the top origin countries of irregular arrivals in Italy and Greece, and is faced with the potential large-scale arrival of Palestinian refugees fleeing the war in Gaza, causing European concern about onward movement towards Europe. It therefore comes as no surprise that the EU and Egypt are taking their relationship to the next level, that of ‘a strategic and comprehensive partnership’.

The three-year agreement was signed at a summit in Cairo, attended by President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, Prime Minister of Egypt Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and the Prime Ministers of Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Austria and Belgium. According to Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the deal was born out of months of negotiations, with particular support from Italy and Greece, as key countries of arrival along the Mediterranean. Von der Leyen noted that its political and economic weight underscores Egypt’s pivotal role within the region.

Totalling 7.4 billion euro, the deal includes 5 billion in soft loans to support Egypt’s economy and 1.8 billion to support business investments. The remaining 600 million shall be dispersed as grants, 200 million of which are earmarked for reducing irregular migration to Europe, with special attention to combating smuggling and trafficking; strengthening Egypt’s borders, particularly with Libya as the primary site of coastal departures; enhancing regular migration pathways and bolstering return and reintegration programming. This echoes similar provisions within the 105-million-euro EU-Tunisia agreement of 2023 on migration management.

This article examines the current mixed migration dynamics to and from Egypt which stand at the core of the strategic partnership as well as the situation of migrants in Egypt before zooming out to consider what can and should be expected from this new deal.

Egypt’s Mixed Migration Situation

A 2022 estimate by IOM placed the number of migrants in Egypt at 9 million, which is approximately 9% of the total population, and includes authorized migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and those in an irregular situation. The majority are living in Cairo, Giza, Alexandria and Damietta. The main countries of origin include Sudan (4 million), Syria (1.5 million), Yemen (1 million) and Libya (1 million), reflecting the political crises that mar the Middle East and North Africa region. These figures underline the EU’s interest in a strengthened migration partnership – especially as the stability of Egypt’s neighbourhood shows no signs of improvement – to ensure these populations do not engage in onward movement.

Largescale Sudanese arrivals

As of March 2024, more than 514,827 Sudanese and third-country nationals have crossed Egypt’s southern border fleeing the war in Sudan. Amidst failing peace negotiations, more displaced are expected to arrive. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Egypt introduced new visa restrictions for all Sudanese, irrespective of their asylum claims. These new measures have led to long waiting times at the Sudan-Egypt border and a flourishing visa forgery business. The have also unintentionally incentivised more precarious and irregular journeys for people who do not have the ability to obtain visas or have the means to support themselves in Northern Sudan while they wait for visas to be processed. In recent weeks and months, reports have emerged of overcrowded migration detention centres, police raids in migrant neighbourhoods, pushbacks and deportations of Sudanese to war-torn Sudan and migrants increasingly opting to move onward because of challenges with timely registration and access to services.

Despite warnings by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi about large numbers of ‘criminals’ lying in wait to ‘help [refugees] move on at a cost’ to European shores, it is unclear how many Sudanese and third-country nationals displaced by the war plan to move onwards from Egypt into Libya (and Tunisia) towards Europe. While Sudanese and other East Africans feature more prominently among arrivals in Italy in the first quarter of 2024, this is mainly due to a decrease in the numbers of arrivals from other regions, since overall numbers of East African and Sudanese arrivals have decreased compared to the same period last year. There remains no evidence of an ‘‘influx of Sudanese refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea’’, as Meloni described in February. Just 5,887 Sudanese arrived in Italy in the whole of 2023. In comparison, since the war broke out in April 2023, over 6.7 million people have become internally displaced in Sudan and over 2 million have moved across borders.

While largescale onward movement is not a likely scenario, movements out of Egypt could increase if the situation for migrants in Egypt deteriorates. Policy actors and assistance organisations should avoid alarmist claims about numbers as a strategy to bolster international action and financial support and focus their efforts on assisting migrants in Egypt based on need rather than as a migration management strategy.

Irregular crossings of Egyptians

In 2023, Egyptians represented just over 7% (11,515 out of 157,651) of all arrivals in Italy along the Central Mediterranean Route – about double the number of Sudanese arrivals – making them the 5th most common nationality. In January and February this year, Egyptians represented the 4th most common nationality. Sea crossings, via Libya, are the main route that Egyptians take when arriving irregularly in Europe, either in Italy or Greece. Very few have departed from the Egyptian coast since 2016, linked to increased patrolling by the Egyptian Coastguard and the passing of anti-human smuggling legislation. According to the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA), March 2022 saw the highest number of Egyptians applying for asylum in Europe since 2014, about one-quarter of whom were granted temporary protection.

Economic crisis fueled by rising grain prices linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, skyrocketing inflation and a lack of foreign currency, high unemployment and recent disruptions to trade caused by Houthi attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea are major drivers of movements out of the country, combined with inadequate protection of human rights. It is unlikely that expanding ‘legal migration pathways in line with national competencies and mobility schemes such as the Talent Partnerships’ will be a sufficient outlet for people impacted by the aforementioned drivers, or that these provisions target the same populations as those engaged in irregular movements. The risk then is that irregular outmigration will be primary addressed through smuggling crackdowns and border management, neither of which takes to task the drivers of migration. Instead, such measures are likely to push Egyptians to use more clandestine and risky routes.

Potential Palestinian displacement into Egypt?

Turning to Egypt’s northeastern border, following a Hamas attack in Israel killing approximately 1,200 people and kidnapping another 250 on 7 October 2023, more than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army and 1.9 million have been internally displaced. Moreover, some 1.5 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants are ‘crammed into Rafah’, Gaza’s southernmost city and the sole border crossing point between Egypt and Gaza. Egypt so far has refused to allow Palestinians to flee into its territory, a stance which stems in part from Egypt’s support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state and the fear that by allowing Palestinian refugees into Egypt, they will not be able to return to Gaza. Despite this, Egypt has been reportedly planning for a large displacement situation in Sinai with the clearing of an area estimated at 21km2. It remains to be seen to what extent the new EU-Egypt deal will touch upon managing a possible Palestinian displacement situation.

Experiences of migrants in Egypt

MMC data collected in Sudan, Ethiopia and South Sudan in 2023 show that a high share of respondents fleeing the Sudan war having witnessed death, experienced physical and sexual violence and/or experienced harsh conditions leading to injuries and illness. Evidence also suggests a sharp increase in children and young adults being separated from their families during the fighting and an increase in people’s reliance on smugglers, who are often perpetrators of abuses, to navigate through areas of fighting and cross borders where visa restrictions have been erected. While public surveys are not legally allowed in Egypt without prior approval or direct collaboration with the government, firsthand accounts shared with MMC by Sudanese migrants receiving support from NGOs in Cairo indicate that they have experienced the same abuses linked to the war and are arriving with the same heightened needs as in Sudan’s other neighbouring countries.

Egyptian authorities, service providers and assistance organisations are therefore likely to face greater challenges than before with regards to accommodating and hosting highly vulnerable groups of Sudanese and other nationalities who have fled conflict and violence. Announcements on the new EU-Egypt deal have so far not detailed plans to safeguard the rights of migrants and ensure full access to services, although an overarching commitment to protecting the rights of migrants has been put forward. The focus has been overwhelmingly on enforcing borders and reducing movements and on leveraging migration to support Egypt’s economy. Analysts warn that the largely economic character of the deal could undermine efforts to reform migration policies. Without an explicit protection focus, migrants could face increases in arrests, arbitrary detention and unlawful deportation, as argued by Ms. Eve Geddie, Amnesty International Director for European Institutions.

While there are currently no comprehensive, publicly available data on the needs of migrants in Egypt, owing to the aforementioned restrictions on public surveys, policy experts note the significant security and social challenges that migrants face in the country. Egypt has a comprehensive legal framework, providing for the inclusion of migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, in national services including education and healthcare, and in the labour market. Despite this, a UN report from March 2022 noted that in practice certain entitlements are not available to all. Faced with discrimination and xenophobia, Sudanese and other East Africans are thought to be living in ‘‘parallel informal communities’’ in urban centres with inadequate access to national services, including to education and healthcare. In addition, the 2023 US Trafficking in Persons Report notes the increased risks for migrants arriving in Egypt to physical and sexual violence, labour exploitation and forced work, including children who face particularly high risks along the Sudan-Egypt border.

Zooming out: what to expect from this deal?

While the deal with Egypt has just been announced, it is not the first of its kind in the region and follows similar deals with Tunisia (July 2023) and Mauritania (March 2024). Despite the scale of funding for Egypt being much larger, looking at examples from the region may provide insight into what could be expected for Egypt.

During a heated debate in Strasbourg in September 2023, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) discussed the lack of results yielded thus far from the Tunisian deal. Some MEPs argued, however, that it was too early to measure results. MMC noted in July 2023 that instead of curbing migration, arrivals in Italy from Tunisia had been rising. From a rights perspective, Tunisia has seen a deterioration in the treatment of migrants since the signing of its deal, with the increase in racist and xenophobic narratives that limit migrants’ access to services and with authorities forcibly displacing migrants to its borders with Libya and Algeria, reportedly leaving them in the desert without water or food. The case of Tunisia not only calls into question the efficacy of the EU’s externalisation policies on migration in terms of reducing arrivals, but also underscores that if human rights concerns and protection needs are not sufficiently addressed, the EU may be looking at a rise in cases of abuse and death in its immediate neighbourhood. This echoes broader critiques levied against EU migration deals by Human Rights Watch and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles that such agreements risk fueling abuses as human rights accounting and benchmarking are absent. At the time of writing, a new investigation by The New Humanitarian was published on the detention of Sudanese refugees in ‘secret military bases’ in Egypt, their deportation to Sudan and the denial of their right to claim asylum.

In the case of Mauritania, previous EU-funded projects on migration and border management succeeded in temporarily reducing arrivals in the Spanish Canary Islands, only for other mixed migration routes to increase in popularity. Moreover, numbers to the Islands increased again once funding declined, showing a lack of sustainability of actions.

What does this mean for Egypt? With wars continuing to foment displacement across the region, people are likely to continue engaging in movements to seek ways out of conflict areas. At the same time, highly vulnerable new arrivals from Sudan with direct experiences of abuse may pose further challenges for Egypt as a host country. If the shortcomings of past migration deals with other countries and the stark realities of the present migration situation in Egypt are not addressed early on, there is a high risk of this partnership not achieving its aim of reducing irregular migration or fulfilling its commitment to protecting the rights of migrants. Further, this partnership, like past migration deals, is primarily focused on border controls, migration management and combating smuggling, which unintentionally incentivises more precarious journeys and exploitative arrangements with smugglers.

Therefore, it is imperative that through this new partnership the EU and Egypt:

– Ensure that the right to asylum in Egypt is not compromised through visa restrictions for those fleeing conflict and seeking protection; and that migrants already in Egypt are not returned to countries where they could face persecution or harm.

– Ensure all components of the deal are implemented in a way that guarantees protection, access to services and the safeguarding of human rights of both migrants and citizens.

– Invest in and prioritize social inclusion and antidiscrimination programming.

– Introduce better mechanisms for identifying victims of trafficking within irregular migrant populations.

– Open up the migration data collection and research space within Egypt. Without publicly available and independently collected data, it will be next to impossible to comprehensively monitor the situation of migrants in the country. Research organizations and institutions of higher learning can serve as a major resource for the Egyptian government in fulfilling the priorities set out in the EU-Egypt deal and other migration policies.

With the dire state of the Egyptian economy, it will be an immense challenge to improve the livelihoods of both Egyptians and migrants in the short term and disincentivise irregular movements out of Egypt. This is why upholding the right to asylum and prioritising protection within migration management programming and policies will be where the most gains can be achieved. At a time when Egypt is showing significant international leadership on migration, with the chairing of the Khartoum Process, in 2024, there may be a window of opportunity for progress in this domain.