UN refugee chief praises Egypt’s ‘central role’ in solving regional crises

Hazel Haddon, Sunday 7 Sep 2014

In exclusive Ahram Online interview, head of UN refugee agency says that Egypt can be a safe haven for refugees while still maintaining its security

Antonio Guterres
António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (Photo: Reuters)

António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has said that Egypt plays a "central role" in resolving regional crises, which he argued was vital to reduce the numbers of those displaced by conflict.

"We have seen it with the success of the recent mediation in Gaza," Guterres told Ahram Online in an interview on Saturday. "In a world where we have so many people displaced – more than 50 million, the highest number since the Second World War – what is important is to be able to prevent conflicts and to solve them."

Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who has headed the UN's refugee agency since 2005, said he had discussed refugee issues with Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi at a meeting in Cairo on Saturday. The UN chief also met with Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry and Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali.

"We had the opportunity to discuss the different crises that are affecting the region, from Libya to Syria, from Syria to Iraq, from Iraq to Yemen, with the recognition that we have that Egypt plays … an absolutely crucial role in addressing these problems," he told Ahram Online.

UNHCR figures for August put the number of refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt at 193,829, although the figure excludes those who have chosen not to register with the UN. Around 140,000 of those registered are Syrians.

"Egypt now has a large number of Syrian refugees, on top of traditional refugee groups in the country, from Eritreans to Sudanese and some Libyans, too," Guterres said, adding that Egypt was making "a very important contribution" at a moment when the country is facing its own economic challenges.

But the UN does have some ongoing concerns about the protection of refugees in Egypt.

"We believe some improvements can still be made in the access to the territory and in the different aspects of the life of refugees in the country," said Guterres. "We have discussed how we can work pragmatically together" to respect the security of Egypt's borders and its territory while acknowledging “that this is compatible with the possibility to grant protection to those in need of it and to those who see Egypt as their safe haven.”

In the wake of the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Egypt placed visa requirements on Syrians wishing to enter the country. In the months following there was a spike in the number of arrests of Syrian refugees in Egypt, and Syrian activists complained of xenophobic media coverage. Although the number of detentions has reportedly decreased in 2014, arrests and deportations are still reported.

Guterres told Ahram Online that "there has been great progress in relation to these people in detention, and that should be underlined" but stressed that UNHCR "always makes a very strong appeal for people not to be sent back to the countries from where they've fled, because they might face persecution."

In Libya, increasing violence has pushed both foreign nationals and Libyans to flee the country in recent months, with thousands of migrant Egyptian workers crossing into neighbouring Tunisia.

Egypt’s Salloum border crossing has remained closed to non-Egyptians, with exceptions made for some injured Libyans and for foreign nationals with the correct travel documents. UNHCR Egypt reported in August that 108 people, mostly Sudanese nationals, were stranded in the no-man’s land between Libya and Egypt, unable to cross into Egypt and without access to any formal assistance.

Guterres said he understands Egypt's need to manage its borders in face of the security concerns from Libya, but that he's also eager for "recognised refugees" from Libya and "those Libyans that are really in need of protection" to have the possibility of access to Egypt – an issue that he says he raised with Egyptian officials during his Cairo meetings.

Guterres also stressed the need for EU countries to do more in the face of the Libyan crisis and the large numbers of Syrian migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean by boat to reach Europe.

"We're seeing a large number of people moving from Libya to Europe. It breaks my heart to see people perishing in the Mediterranean just to reach safety," he said.

Guterres called for European countries to facilitate the access of Syrians to Europe through more flexible visa policies, family reunification programs and enhanced resettlement options, citing Sweden and Germany as examples of countries that had "responded very positively" to the situation.

Asked about the Egyptian authorities' policy of arresting refugees and migrants found attempting to leave the country via irregular routes, Guterres said that UNHCR understands Egypt's intention "to avoid having people face those risks" but said that "those who go into those boats, for us, are essentially victims."

"We have been advocating with the authorities for the people that have been detained to be released, and as a matter of fact this is happening, for the majority," he said.

Guterres stressed that greater cooperation between countries of origin, transit and destination and the creation of legal avenues of movement into Europe would reduce the pressure on north African countries.

"What we are witnessing is a succession of human tragedies for which there is no humanitarian response. There is never a humanitarian solution for a humanitarian crisis -- the solution is always political. And I hope Egypt will be in the very centre of finding political solutions for the crises in the region."

Guterres' visit to Egypt will conclude on Sunday.

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