On the occasion of the celebration of the United Nations day in 24 October, the UN offered a series of interviews exclusively for Al-Ahram online.
The UN day marks the anniversary of the entry of the UN chart into force in 1945.
With the ratification of this founding document by the majority of its signatories, including the five permanent members of the security Council, the United Nations officially came into being.
The second interview in the series is with Karim Atassi, the Representative to UNHCR Egypt and the League of Arab States.
Can you tell us about the history of UNHCR in Egypt and its role today?
Egypt is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, as well as to the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.
In 1954, UNHCR and the Government of Egypt signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which authorised the establishment of the Branch Office Cairo, UNHCR’s first field operation in Africa. The MoU outlined the responsibilities of the government and UNHCR and delegated the registration, documentation and Refugee Status Determination of asylum-seekers and refugees to the latter. Today, UNHCR has four offices located in Cairo, 6 October City and Alexandria with 196 national and 60 international staff members serving refugees.
How would you describe the refugee situation in Egypt?
Egypt has shown great generosity towards asylum-seekers and refugees, and we commend the openness with which Egypt has continued to host refugees in urban settings in spite of its economic difficulties. In this regard, Egypt has been hospitable, and we continuously encourage and support the government to continue to host refugees and give them access to social, health, and education services. We also encourage international solidarity with Egypt from the main donor countries.
Currently, there are over 235,000 registered people of concern to UNHCR in the country from 58 different nationalities, including Syrians, Sudanese, Eritreans, Yemenis and Iraqis.
The mainstreaming of refugees of all nationalities into the public health system is one of the main improvements in the standard of treatment of refugees during the past two years, thanks to the generosity of the Egyptian government. All nationalities now have access to public healthcare services, while Syrians, Sudanese, South Sudanese and Yemenis can access the public education system on equal footing with Egyptians.
How does UNHCR try to foster co-existence and social cohesion in Egypt between refugees and the host community?
The Egyptian society is open, welcoming and generous. This has been the case throughout the long history of this great nation. UNHCR promotes community cohesion through advocacy and awareness programmes. We shed light on resilient refugees who make positive contributions to their host communities and ensure that the public is aware of these contributions and also the challenges they face on a daily basis. Celebrities and media can play an important role in amplifying the voices of refugees.
UNHCR has also developed a community-based programme where refugees and asylum-seekers have the opportunity to participate in capacity building and skill enhancement initiatives side by side with Egyptians. These activities run in cooperation with local institutions and entities to bridge any cultural gaps and foster community cohesion.
What are UNHCR’s main priorities in Egypt?
UNHCR supports and promotes the protection and well-being of refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt. Special attention is given to vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied minors, separated children and survivors of torture or of sexual and gender-based violence. We also work very closely with the various ministries who are providing refugees and asylum-seekers access to their services, in particular in education and health.
What are the main challenges facing UNHCR in Egypt?
UNHCR strives to meet the basic needs of refugees and asylum-seekers. It is estimated that 85 percent of the refugees and asylum-seekers registered with our office are vulnerable and they are in need of assistance. Unfortunately, UNHCR is not in a position to assist everyone due to budget constraints. Additional international solidarity and further support from the donor countries are crucial for UNHCR Egypt and for the front-line public institutions serving refugees and asylum-seekers.