III. Racist attitudes and Racially-Motivated Identity Checks and Detentions

Migrant workers, especially black Africans, report regular verbal harassment and physical attacks both in the streets by members of the public and by law-enforcement officials in Egypt. According to an independent report Egyptians "shout names such as “oonga boonga” or samara (meaning “black”) at Sudanese and other African migrants. Stories of attacks by both the police and street thugs circulate widely. One doctor has reported seeing an average of one violent attack on African refugees per month."12

An African male reported that “A group of Egyptians beat me and broke my leg and stole my money when I was on my way home from work.”13 

Articles expressing xenophobic views in general or racist views towards black Africans in particular often appear in the Egyptian press, including the state-owned press. Migrants are often portrayed as communities with low morals who spread disease. In an article entitled “AIDS…is coming!” which appeared in the state-owned weekly magazine Al-Musawwar on 2 March 2007 the writer expressed alarm at the fact that 90% of foreigners living with HIV in Egypt are Africans, and called on the ministers of health and tourism to identify tourists living with HIV and “especially those Africans who are not tourists and who are now spread throughout Egypt…This, in my view, is a matter of national security.”14

These discriminatory attitudes are fueled by a failure of the government to raise awareness, provide information and dispel myths about migrant workers in Egypt and to clarify the positive economic role they play in Egypt. The impact of these images on sustaining and increasing discrimination and hostility towards migrants must not be underestimated. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants:

The media is another factor that can contribute to exacerbating discriminatory practices against migrants. Media representation of migrants tends all too often to be stereotypical. Language and labeling can be subtle channels to convey subliminal discriminatory messages, which impact on collective imagery. Once a negative discourse misrepresenting migrants is established, it tends to prevail.15

In 2006 the Egyptian Parliament approved an amendment to the Penal Code which criminalized the incitement of discrimination against groups of people on several grounds, including race and origin.16 While undoubtedly a positive step, no prosecution based on this amendment has been reported since its adoption last year.

These racist attitudes moreover feed into abuses committed by security forces against migrant workers. Black migrants often report being stopped for arbitrary identity checks solely on the basis of their skin color.  Round-ups of anyone who 'looks' African are often reported and unmistakably racially-motivated.  One such round-up was detailed in the 2004 report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants who described an incident of racially motivated arrests of hundreds of foreigners that took place in Cairo:

During the raids, which reportedly took place on 28 and 29 January, plain-clothes policemen and security forces allegedly entered homes, without showing either identification or warrants, and arrested foreigners, predominantly people of sub-Saharan African origin. Other foreigners were arrested while walking down the street, and were prevented from returning home to collect identity papers. Still others were beaten during the arrests and sustained injuries as a result. It was reported that police wagons and minibuses patrolled the streets of the al-Maadi district of Cairo throughout the day on 28 January, looking for “Blacks”. Reportedly, 28 January was referred to as “Black Day” and the intake sheet on which police took names at al-Maadi station was reportedly headed, in Arabic, “Operation Track Down Blacks”. Detainees were reportedly held at al-Maadi and Bassatin police stations in inhumane and crowded conditions. Allegedly, as many as 80 people were crammed into cells measuring three by four meters and were forced to stand overnight.17

This is clearly a violation of Article 14 of the ICRMW, on the right to protection of the law against arbitrary or unlawful interference in regards to the privacy, family, home, correspondence, communication, honor or reputation of migrant workers. It is additionally a violation of Article 10 on the prevention of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Article 16 regarding the right to protection by the State against violence, physical threats and intimidation, as well as the right to have identity checks carried out in accordance with procedures established by the law.

Interestingly, the Egyptian government’s reply to the Special Rapporteur’s communication on the incident conceded that the sole criterion for this campaign of mass arrests was the arrestees' black skin:

Numerous complaints had been received from Egyptians and foreign nationals residing in Egypt about accidents in which nationals of African countries approached and threatened them with knives with the intention of stealing their personal belongings or coercing them into “engaging in depravity or debauchery”. Between 28 and 29 January 2003, 183 African nationals suspected of having committed the above offences were placed under arrest.18 

The need to provide adequate training for Egyptian law-enforcement officials on racial discrimination and other human rights issues was highlighted by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination after considering Egypt’s periodic report in 2001:

The Committee recommends that the State party continue its efforts to train all personnel working in the field of criminal justice and law enforcement officials in the spirit of respect for human rights and non-discrimination on ethnic or racial grounds.19

Recommendations: The government should intensify and accelerate efforts to combat racist and xenophobic views towards migrant workers, especially those of Black African origin, and to promote awareness of their positive contribution to society. The government should train all personnel working in the field of criminal justice and law enforcement officials in the spirit of respect for human rights and non-discrimination on ethnic or racial grounds.


12- Azzam, Fateh (Ed.), “A Tragedy of Failures and False Expectations: Report on the Events Surrounding the Three-month Sit-in and Forced Removal of Sudanese Refugees in Cairo, September–December 2005”, the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program,  the American University in Cairo, June 2006.

13- Ibid.

14- Abdel-‘Aazim, Soleiman, “Al-AIDS Gayy! [AIDS is coming!]”, Al-Musawwar, 2 March 2007, p. 15.

15- Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Jorge Bustamante, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2006/73, para. 68.

16- Law 147 of the year 2006 Amending Some Provisions of the Penal Code, Article 3, Official Gazette issue no. 28, 15 July 2006.

17- Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrant workers, Gabriela Rodríguez Pizarro, Addendum: Communications sent to Governments and replies received, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2004/76/Add.1, para. 60.

18- Ibid., para. 62. 

19- Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Egypt.15/08/2001, UN Doc. A/56/18, para. 289.