In Egypt, coronavirus crisis slams refugee community

Sama Osama , Tuesday 14 Apr 2020

Most refugees in Egypt are reliant on daily wages or are domestic workers, and these are among the forms of employment that are hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic

Nyakuoyo, a South Sudanese refugee (third from right) with seven children, some of them seen in this image, applying to a UNHCR cash-based intervention at Caritas in Cairo, Egypt (Photo courtesy of UNHCR)

Afghan refugee Mohammad Elias Khanjar had recently moved to Egypt in search of a safer life shortly before the corornavirus crisis exploded, but he has since been struggling to get registered amid the ensuing shutdown.

The fallout from the global pandemic has put Egypt’s already vulnerable refugee community in an even tougher situation, with services from refugee agencies significantly disrupted by the recent measures.

The majority of refugees in Egypt are reliant on daily wages or are domestic workers, and these are among the forms of employment that are hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Egypt and its partner organisations have suspended many of their services due to the outbreak.

Earlier this week, UNHCR Egypt announced it is prolonging a suspension of some of its activities and postponing all interviews including those for refugee registration, refugee status determination, resettlement and voluntary repatriation – except for emergency cases.

It said, however, that it has maintained financial assistance to support refugees and is proceeding with essential services related to sexual and gender-based violence and child protection, “albeit in reduced capacity.” Protection and counselling now take place through phone and emails.

“I had worked with the US government and international organisations in Afghanistan for almost 11 years, but I had received threats from unknown people, mostly terrorists,” Khanjar told Ahram Online.

“I moved to Egypt to have a safe and better life,” the father of two said.

Registration with the UNHCR protects refugees and asylum-seekers from detention and deportation, and entitles them to obtain legal residence permits, legalising their stay in Egypt. Registered refugees and asylum-seekers also get access to several social services.

Khanjar arrived in Egypt more than a month ago, and had sought to register with the UNHCR before he learned that it had partially suspended its operations amid restrictive measures to contain the spread of the virus. When he contacted the organisation, he was told to follow up with their website and Facebook page.

“I am worried that if the crisis continues my visa will expire, and I don’t know if I will be able to support my family and legalise my stay here in Egypt,” Khanjar said.

UNHCR staff member speaking to a refugee at the main reception area in Cairo, Egypt (Photo courtesy of UNHCR)

Egypt hosts 249,709 registered refugees and asylum-seekers from 57 countries, according to a fact sheet published by the UNHCR in August 2019. Syrians represent more than half of the figure with a population of 130,371, followed by Sudanese at 45,106 and South Sudanese at 17,197. The agency said funds requested for refugee operations in Egypt were $104.2 million as of August 2019.

“My card is expired… and I need assistance," another refugee said on the UN agency's Facebook page, adding that he sought assistance from the organisation though he is having trouble communicating through the phone due to the language barrier.

A source at the UNHCR told Ahram Online that while the agency is aware that the precautionary measures are impacting refugees and their access to services, “safety is a core principle” for the organisation.

“Those who would come to the organisation’s premises for interviews and services usually live far away, and they would have to take public transportation, putting their own lives and those of others in danger,” the source, who requested to remain anonymous, explained.

The waiting area at the organisation’s premises is also usually very crowded, which makes it difficult to implement the necessary safety measures, the source added.

The UNHCR currently operates a referral system through its infoline to provide protection services and organise “emergency” interviews, including for those who need urgent registration to access medical services, the source said.

Compounding woes

Local and international refugee organisations in Egypt typically provide different types of services like livelihood grants, tuition grants, cash transfers, educational training, and protection against gender-based violence.

Most of these refugee agencies, whose primary donor and partner is the UNHCR, have also suspended many of their services and switched to phone communication instead of receiving the beneficiaries at their premises, which has made life harder even for the registered refugees.

Hassan Norein, a registered Sudanese refugee, has never relied on assistance from relief organisations since he moved to Cairo two years ago. Instead, he has been taking different jobs to eke out a living, which often are “hard, low-paying and require long and unsocial hours” and barely cover his flat rent and basic everyday needs.

But now that he lost his job as a waiter after his restaurant shut down amid restrictions to stem the spread of the virus, he needs help more than any time before.

“I am now totally unable to pay for neither the rent nor bare essentials, and the landlord has threatened to kick me out if I don’t pay him in a week,” Norein said.

“My neighbours were kicked out of their flat three days ago, they now live with me without the permission of my apartment owner,” he added.

“We have been trying to reach out to the UNHCR and other organisations to help us during this tough time, but we received nothing.”

A Syrian refugee registers at UNHCR’s office in Cairo, Egypt, in September 2016 (Photo courtesy of UNHCR)

The challenge is even more daunting for those dealing with violence.

This is the case with Mai Tarek, who handles sexual and gender-based violence cases at a Geneva-based aid organisation that assists marginalised communities in Egypt, which she requested not to be identified.

Case management in response to gender-based violence is hard under normal circumstances, and the current crisis has made it even more challenging, Mai told Ahram Online.

“The usual work involves interviews with victims of gender-based or sexual violence, and based on these interviews we decide on the suitable type of assistance,” she explained.

“Since now we have to work only with urgent cases, we are forced to make a difficult decision by choosing between victims who have been subjected to violence at their homes, and it’s extremely hard to decide whose suffering is worse.”

There are also difficulties in working with female victims through phones, because many of them may not have access to phones, and, as Mai asserts, might not even have credit balance to make a phone call.

The coronavirus crisis has compounded other struggles facing the refugee community in Egypt, she said.

Many refugees have reported an increase in racism and xenophobia, and say they are now stigmatised as people fear that refugees are more likely to contract the virus because of their poor living conditions, Tarek said.

Some refugees who live in apartment buildings with Egyptians are facing harassment from their neighbours over fears that foreigners transmit the virus, and many were asked to leave their apartments, she says.

“Many refugees make a living through working as domestic workers, and many of those workers have been recently laid off because of the pandemic and they have lost their source of income,” she adds.

Mohamed Osama, who works in a refugee education program at another US-based refugee service agency, which he requested not to be named, also says their services have been significantly disrupted by the crisis.

The program typically provides educational services, academic assistance and study skills to child refugees – many of them unaccompanied and separated children.

But since Egypt decided to suspend schools last month, the NGO also suspended all its activities.

It has, however, been looking for alternatives to continue providing help to those in need, but the limited resources of these families remain a hurdle.

The NGO wants to “virtualise” its work with children, Mohamed said, but the problem is that many of the beneficiaries do not have internet access or even mobile phones.

“We reached out to our beneficiaries through surveys to know how they are able to continue with their lives, and to see what kind of means they have – especially internet connections and computers – in order to figure out the possible method by which we can continue our activities,” Mohamed told Ahram Online.

Mohamed is primarily involved in the monitoring and evaluation process as well as in strategic planning for the program. He said that since the crisis started, they have been creating work plans in order to be responsive to the crisis.

“It is especially hard now since the program heavily relies on field work and we have the problem of limited resources,” Mohamed said.

“The whole global situation is very vague, but we are trying our best to cope with the challenges.”

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