Refugees remain invisible in post-revolutionary Egypt

Sarah El-Rashidi, Friday 6 Apr 2012

Refugees and asylum seekers face many challenges in Egypt - violent crime, worsening economic conditions, racism, a lack of legal rights - that leave them hoping for political stability

Sudanese refugees
Egyptian police violently breaks up sit-in by Sudanese refugees in 2005 (Photo: Reuters)

Egypt, like many countries in the region, witnessed revolutionary upheaval during 2011, which had a great impact on the lives of many refugees and asylum seekers. Although Egypt is signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention that defines who is a refugee, their rights and the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum, it has yet to develop domestic asylum procedures and institutions.

“The definition of refugee stated by the 1951 Convention has caused most people to incorrectly link refugees with economic migrants,” argues Sami Mohamed, an articulate 21 year-old Ethiopian refugee who fled political persecution following the abduction of his father by government security forces at the age of 14.  

“I was imprisoned at the age of 19 after being accused of affiliation with an anti-governmental political party,” he said. 

Sami continued his heart-rending story, explaining to Ahram Online how, two years later, he fled to Egypt after his mother was killed for facilitating his escape from prison.

Arriving in Egypt during the revolution was ironically good timing for many refugees like Sami, as the bureaucratic procedures for attaining refugee status were less time-consuming.

The January 25 revolution provides future hope for refugees in Egypt in terms of improved living conditions, greater security and protection. However, in the short to medium term, the conditions of refugees’ lives have deteriorated considerably. Many complain that security for refugees in post-revolution Egypt is a major concern, as crime has risen.

Incidents of harassment and discrimination towards refugees have not returned to pre-January 2011 levels, said Omar, a Somali refugee, who preferred to use a pseudonym. 

Before the January protests, Omar said: "If you paid a bribe, the police would help you. Now, they'll keep the bribe and do nothing."

Sami reinforced the severity of the security situation. “Getting robbed now is a normal occurrence. Female harassment and assault has also risen. If you can’t speak Arabic you have less of a chance of defending yourself.”

To make matters worse, refugees who are victims of crime are unable to report the incident since they are not a recognised legal citizen under Egyptian law. The lack of security may well explain why the number of cases for resettlement, a process by which refugees are sent to live in a different country than the one in which they sought protection, rose after the revolution. 

"The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) usually has 900 cases for resettlement per year; in 2011 we had 1,550 cases in response to the mounting demands from refugees," said Mai Mahmoud, UNHCR focal point assistant protection officer.

Furthermore, taking into consideration the deteriorating socio-economic conditions facing the majority of Egyptians after the revolution, refugees and asylum-seekers are unavoidably exposed to the same quandary. Yet given their impotent status they are unable to attain legal work, leading to destitution.

"Even if refugees are working they are still not allowed to work legally, according to Egyptian law," states Celeste Jackson, the UNHCR focal point for registration at the gate.

Refugees like Sami who now works for the organisation are hired as contractors and paid in cash on a daily basis.

While undeclared and clandestine work opportunities in Egypt are greater for refugee women than men, many women only work as maids.

“Women don’t have protection,” states Fatma Soleman, a 37-year-old refugee who fled Eritrea, then part of Ethiopia. Employers sometimes abuse refugees, depriving them of food or their monthly salary of around US$65-80, claims Soleman.

Nevertheless, Soleman stresses the importance of work for refugees. “Many refugees don’t accept their life in Egypt, so they’re really depressed.” Working keeps them busy and distracts them from their traumatic experiences, she says.

Access to university education, according to Sami, is another impediment for refugees since they must pay the same level of fees that foreigners pay, which most cannot afford. Refugees are thus caught in state of turmoil, unable to access university education or legal work. 

Moreover, many organisations that provide subsidies and alternative work and educational opportunities to refugees have been negatively affected by the revolution.

Benefits are much harder to attain given the growing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers and limited resources. Furthermore, due to the Egyptian government's crackdown on NGOs early this year, thousands of refugees have not received their monthly living allowance.   

Another hindrance identified by many refugees concerns the residency permit, which needs to be renewed every six months through a process which takes three full days and involves a lot of tiring bureaucracy.

Staggeringly, even refugees who are born in Egypt and may have never visited their country of origin need to renew their residency. 

“As a refugee in Egypt you are invisible. We just want the government to recognise us,” argues Sami.

The only way to be liberated from the stigma of refugee status is through resettlement; however many refugees do not want to leave Egypt as they have grown attached to the country.

Though the revolution has given refugees residing in Egypt optimism, the current political instability suggests the unjust reality currently facing them is unlikely to change quickly.    

Asylum-seekers continue to arrive on a daily basis in Egypt and those seeking refugee status are able to register, receive protection and counselling services from UNHCR and its partner agencies.

"When registering, men and women are treated the same, unless a child is involved; then additional subsidies for the single mother may be provided," confirmed Jackson. 

As well as being a refugee recipient country, Egypt is also a transitory terrain for irregular activities, particularly from sub-Saharan countries through the Sinai peninsula.

Tackling the challenges posed by such unorthodox movements remains a priority for organisations supporting refugees, so as to ensure Egypt's prolonged security and guarantee that the principle of non-refoulement is upheld.

Non-refoulement is the principle of not forcibly returning individuals to a country where they can reasonably be expected to suffer a human rights abuse, according to Amnesty International.

 Refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt are predominantly from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia and Sudan. The largest national group are the approximately 10,300 Sudanese refugees currently in the country, along with 14,500 asylum seekers. Iraqis have the second largest refugee population at 7,400, followed by Somalia at 6,600. 

"Depending on the refugee’s country of origin, the process of attaining refugee status is simplified; certain countries are favoured," said Jackson.

Such racial discrimination was also identified as a problem within Egyptian society, according to Sami. “Egyptians are prejudiced towards Ethiopians; we often say we are from Somalia since Somalis usually receive the warm welcome ‘ahsan nas’ (best people).”  

Sami believes this intolerance may be related to the Nile water dispute, or because Ethiopians are not perceived as Arab as they do not speak Arabic like Somalis.

Today there are an estimated 500,000 undocumented migrants in Egypt. Of these, 43,000 are recognised as refugees, of whom 12,000 receive a monthly allowance of US$33-66 from UNHCR, according to the NGO AMERA (Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance).

Since the end of the Libyan revolution, it is estimated that 15,300 Libyans are still residing in Egypt and more than 1,600 refugees of all nationalities remain stranded at Saloum on the Libyan-Egyptian border.

In response, organisations supporting refugees continue to provide shelter, food, water, sanitation, health, psychosocial support and when necessary, they facilitate resettlement.

The tremendous work of many organisations helping refugees in Egypt is commendable, giving many a second chance to rebuild their life.

“I love my job at UNHCR; nothing beats welcoming a new refugee who hasn’t eaten in three days and making them feel safe again. Seeing the smile on their face makes it all worthwhile,” said Sami.

In spite of the mounting obstacles facing refugees in post-revolutionary Egypt, UNHCR staff remain optimistic.

Following the organisation’s meeting last week with the parliamentary human rights committee, headed by Mohamed Anwar Sadat, in which the intention to support refugees and ensure their rights are upheld in this new political era was highlighted.

"We are hoping the situation for refugees in Egypt will improve with the resumption of political stability," asserted Mahmoud.

This notion was to some extent reiterated by Mahmoud Amer, rapporteur for the committee.

“Next week we are going to visit Saloum to assess the needs of the refugees; in terms of refugees in Cairo we plan to focus on expanding their access to better education and health facilities.”

Amer said the committee would try to suggest a shift in policy in order to reduce university fees for refugees, to make them on par with what Egyptians pay. However, when questioned about legalising work for refugees he replied frankly, choosing not to answer the question and instead restated his previous statement. 

“The unemployment rate is very high in Egypt, affecting millions of Egyptians; thus our current agenda for refugees focuses on improved education and health services.”

Historically such governmental neglect led to the massacre of 28 Sudanese refugees in December 2005 after thousands had staged a three month sit-in outside the offices of UNHCR.

The demonstration was in protest at UNHCR’s ongoing suspension of refugee status determination procedures, as well as the intolerable living conditions in Cairo and inability to work legally. Clashes between Sudanese protesters and Egyptian riot police led to the deaths of 28 and the injuries of many more when the security forces broke up the protest with batons and water cannons. 

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