Eritrean refugees in Egypt went to the UNHCR office in Cairo on 21 July to demand better protection from the agency which legally represents all recognised refugees in the country. As the 500 refugees reached the agency office, UNHCR personnel asked them to send two people to deliver their message and explain their grievances. The refugees asked Abdulhadi Mohammed and Denden Ismail to deliver a letter and speak to UNHCR personnel about the security concerns of Eritrean refugees in Egypt.

One of the staff who talked with the two refugees was the chief protection officer (a Kenyan lady whose name will be update later) who asked them if they were the organisers of the march and if they had written the letter which listed the refugee’s grievances. They told her that they were simply a part of the march, and they came in to the office because the refugees were asked by her to send some people to deliver the letter which was written by the Eritrean Refugee Community.

The two refugees told the visibly angry protection officer that the refugees were thankful for all the work that the UNHCR office does, but that they still have serious security concerns which the community had reported to her on multiple occasions in the past. They then asked her to let them meet the head of UNHCR Egypt. The ‘protection officer’ kept insisting that the two were the ‘criminals’ who wrote the letter and that they were the organisers of the march. She then told them Eritrean refugees in Egypt have no problems whatsoever, and that they have no right whatsoever to ask anything from the UNHCR, insulted them and did her best to disempower them. She also blocked their request to be allowed to talk with the head of UNHCR in Egypt.

As soon as the refugees saw that the protection officer was in very combative and violent mode, they thanked her for her cooperation and politely withdrew. The rude and threatful ‘protection’ officer then went ahead and called the police telling them some Eritrean refugees had attacked the UNHCR compound. She then followed the two refugees and promised she would show them who she is, and told them they would be punished severely for daring to hint that she was not doing her job properly by demanding better protection from the UNHCR.

The UNHCR staff were in shock as they saw their chief protection officer attacking the refugees verbally, telling the police the refugees were planning security sabotage, promising to punish them even more and watching with satisfaction as police brutally beat them up.

After receiving a call from the protection officer, the police outside started beating up the refugees who were outside the compound. Other UNHCR staff were helpless witnessing the crazed protection officer’s assault and the police’s misguided actions prove the very point the refugees were trying to make.

Denden and Abdulhadi were rounded up by police at the compound and taken to jail. By the time they were being kidnapped from the UNHCR office, the march had been dispersed very violently by police. Many of the refugees had been severely wounded. All the women were crying and desperately calling for help as the UNHCR delivered the punishment it promised.

The other three detainees — Feday Yemane, Hermon Goitom and Yonatan Biemnet — were rounded up on the streets as they returned home from the march. UNHCR staff suggest police might have recognised them because most of the young men at the march were violently and severely beaten by riot police.

None of the five detainees, all of whom hold UNHCR refugee protection papers, have been allowed to communicate with their families and community. They have not yet found any legal representation.

All of the five refugees are being held at a prison in 6th of October (ستة أكتوبر) City. Sources from the district police say the refugees are being held with more than 40 other detainees in a four square metre cell. Sources who are connected with the district public prosecutor’s office confirm that no legal representation for the refugees has approached the public prosecutor’s office and that the refugees, most of whom do not speak Arabic, will be forced to represent themselves at court.

Egyptian citizens who had been through the Sita Aktober prison say that holding conditions are subhuman in the unventilated, overcrowded and extremely unhygienic cells where prisoners are routinely beaten to force confessions. Rape is very common and deliberately overlooked.

Our Egyptian contact who volunteered to talk with UNHCR staff and with police sources was unable to confirm if the protection officer at UNHCR Egypt is the same foul-mouthed Kenyan lady who was working at the South Sudan UNHCR office in Juba in 2013-2014 and who kept insulting and kicking out Eritrean refugees who came to the office to apply for asylum. Whether it is the same person or two, this only shows serious problems with some UNHCR personnel and with the way the agency recruits their staff.