“Egypt’s top priority in Africa is the future of Sudan,” stated a Wikileak cable that further explained that a unified Sudan would serve Egypt’s interest. According to an Egyptian official, the creation of a new South Sudanese state would likely increase the flow of refugees into Egypt. With the combination of an estimated 1.5 million new South Sudanese refugees entering Egypt post-South Sudan, the future of Sudan certainly merits its position as Egypt’s top priority in Africa. Its inability to accommodate its current refugee population in accordance with international human rights and refugee law is not a positive indicator for Egypt’s ability to meet its international obligations that will be triggered with the needs of an expanded refugee population.

During the second week of January 2011, South Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum. The vote resulted in the creation of a new state, splitting the religiously and ethnically divided Sudan in two. With over one million South Sudanese living in north Sudan, the referendum could result in a mass exodus of Southern Sudanese from Khartoum and it’s outlying areas into neighboring Egypt. These new refugees would join some 750,000 Sudanese already residing in Egypt.

Although the Sudanese refugees that currently reside in Egypt fled Sudan seeking safety, they encountered new challenges of poverty and exploitation in Egypt. Egypt utilizes the broad and encompassing definition of “refugee” as put forth by the Organization of African Unity Convention – a definition which is widely heralded as a success by the international community for its flexibility. Of the 750,000 Sudanese in Egypt, only 18,000 are legally registered with the government. Unregistered Sudanese refugees cannot legally work, cannot utilize the public education system, and have had difficulty seeking legal remedy to bring complaints of mistreatment by security forces.

Egypt’s practice of refugee mistreatment extends further than just limiting their legal rights. The state has used violence against Sudanese refugees and illegally deported refugees back to their home state. In the past, Egypt has been accused of illegally deporting Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, despite their vulnerability to torture and detention in their home states. There is also evidence that Egyptian soldiers shoot at and kill African migrants being deported from or trying to enter Israel through their shared border.

Egypt has no national implementing legislation relating to refugees. Its legal obligations arise from provisions in international agreements it is party to, including the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol as well as the African Refugee Convention of 1974. Both conventions prohibit the forcible return, or refoulment, of refugees to another state where the refugee has a reasonable fear of persecution. Furthermore, killing refugees and asylum seekers is a violation of Article 7 the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 4 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, international legislation to which Egypt is a party.

With such a poor track record, it is difficult to foresee how Egypt will accommodate the possible influx of Sudanese refugees in the wake of post-referendum violence in Sudan. Khartoum’s water concerns and apprehension of South Sudan as an upper-riparian state have already laid the groundwork for a hostile relationship with the new state. Regardless, Egypt has international obligations to treat new South Sudanese refugees appropriately, either by offering them the potential of asylum or ensuring that they are not forcibly deported to Sudan. Even though the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has already begun to create contingency plans for displaced South Sudanese, Egypt has to prepare for further international obligations that are likely to be triggered by the reality of an independent South Sudan.