Overview of Refugee Situation in Egypt


Hisham Issa, Egyptian Foundation for Refugee Rights (EFRR) – Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA- Egypt)*


The current state of political and social unrest, and increasing violence that Egypt is currently witnessing has had a negative impact on all segments of the population, especially asylum seekers and refugees, who have been facing increasing abuse and xenophobic attacks.  In early June 2013, increased violence and attacks have been particularly directed towards Ethiopian asylum seekers and refugees after the Ethiopian Government has announced the diversion of the Blue Nile and the inauguration of the construction process of the Great Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia.  Unfortunately, the media has played a negative role in flaring up this violence, as Egypt was depicted as facing an acute water scarcity crisis.  


More than 20 incidents of xenophobic attacks against Ethiopians were recorded.



UNHCR has issued a press release on 10th June showing its concern about these attacks and calling upon the Egyptian public opinion to protect the physical integrity and the other rights of Ethiopian refugees in accordance with the international obligations of Egypt and the traditional hospitality of the Egyptian people that is clearly shown nowadays in the great support towards Syrian refugees.


Ironically, after the events of 30th June, it’s Syrian refugees who started facing abuse and a totally different treatment from both the Egyptian authorities and the local population, as they are perceived to be supporters of President Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Many Syrians have already been accused of participating in the clashes and taking part in attacks against anti-Morsy demonstrators in several Egyptian cities.


Hundreds of Syrian young men have been arbitrarily detained by the Egyptian military and security personnel, including several minors, and people registered with UNHCR, amidst this growing anti-Syrian sentiment.  UNHCR has shown grave concern over this, and has requested access to around 85 detained Syrians, and assurance from the authorities that they would not be deported to Syria, stressing that they should have fair access to justice and due process of law in Egypt.


The Government of Egypt (GOE) has imposed restrictive entry procedures on 8th July requiring Syrians coming to Egypt to already have a visa and prior security approval.  Some 476 Syrians have been deported or denied entrance to Egypt until mid-July.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the new visa measures are temporary and that these measures will not affect support for Syrians in Egypt.  However, many Syrians reported that they are facing more abuses, arbitrary detention by the police forces, and even worse, attacks and abuses from the local population in the neighbourhoods, where they are living.  Furthermore, Syrians are now denied access to enrol their children at public schools, as they used to do previously, despite the fact that no official decrees have been issued by the government or the Ministry of Education to annul the former Presidential Decree issued to this effect.  Again, there are reports that some Syrians have been denied access to public health facilities. 


The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres issued an appeal on 12th July to the Egyptian authorities, as he has to all other governments in the world, to admit and protect all Syrians seeking refuge in their country.  The new  measures against Syrians has led to a notable increase in the number of Syrians approaching UNHCR for registration, to ensure they get international protection and avoid facing arbitrary detention and deportation. The number of Syrians in Egypt is estimated to be around 250,000 to 300,000.  More than 128,000 are already registered with UNHCR as of early December 2013. 


In Sinai, the situation is direr.  With the ongoing military operations against terrorist groups, the security of migrants and refugees trafficked in Sinai has become detriment.  Egypt has seen a marked rise in the number of refugee victims of trafficking (VoT) who have experienced extreme and prolonged maltreatment and torture in the Sinai region of Egypt over the preceding two years.   In Cairo, there are more than 400 survivors of trafficking who escaped or have been released from Sinai 'torture camps' after being sold and resold many times in Egypt with no law enforcement intervention and no arrests or prosecutions to date.   


For those victims of trafficking, who survived torture, living among Cairo's urban population, the knock-on effects of the Arab Spring continue to make their difficult circumstances yet worse.  Many of these refugees have experienced violent attacks and xenophobia from the host population.  While this is not novel for African refugees in Cairo, there is a sense that the volume of these attacks has increased due to the post-Revolution retreat of the omnipresent security apparatus and the direction of their attention to other, seemingly more pressing, security concerns, such as curbing demonstrations and sporadic public unrest.  Crucially, allegations of impunity increase due to a lack of police and state action to protect these vulnerable populations.  The ongoing turmoil and insecurity have dramatically changed the refugees’ daily lives in Cairo.  There is a high sense of insecurity within the refugee communities. They are struggling with security and protection issues almost on a daily basis.


From a physical protection perspective, refugees who left their countries due to life threatening situations do not find the security and human dignity they so hoped for in Cairo.  The Government of Egypt (GOE) fails to deliver on the basic services of protecting physical safety, securing personal property and settling disputes fairly, if at all, between local community members themselves, and between locals and refugees.  Refugees in Cairo are considered highly marginalized and vulnerable, as the existing legal system and unfavourable GOE’s policies and practices fail to protect them and provide them with adequate and effective access to justice. 


The justice system fails to fulfil its stated objectives of protecting them from theft, violence, and official abuse.  In many instances, the justice system seems like ‘organized theft’, due to police extortion, unjust imprisonment, and police and court bribery.  Refugees use their scarce disposable income for self-protection through giving bribes or buying light weapons to shield themselves from both state and private plundering.  The general state of lawlessness, which followed the events of 25th January 2011, has undermined confidence, sense of security, and created a general culture of fear, coupled with the already existing impoverishment and economic vulnerability of this group of the population.  


In fact, the GOE has maintained  reservations to four of the five articles of Chapter IV of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the ‘welfare’ provisions, refugees living in Egypt are not entitled to the rationing of ‘products in short supply’ (Article 20), public education (Article 22), ‘public relief’ (Article 23), and access to the labour market and social security (Article 24). [1]  These effects are worsened still by the lack of any provisions, save marriage to an Egyptian national, for foreign national refugees to naturalize as Egyptian citizens even when they remain unable to return to their countries of origin.[2]  Refugees must also contend with xenophobia which, for black Africans in particular, can quickly morph into violent racism.  Taken together, this means that refugees in Cairo have practically no hope of integration.  For the very vulnerable (such as religious minorities, and victims of trafficking with on-going protection concerns) and those with specific needs (such as single women with children and medical cases) the only hope of survival is resettlement to a third country. Again, this is not easy and the processes of resettlement are very complicated, and only a few manage to do so.


This unfortunate situation necessitates and highlights the importance of legal support of refugees to ensure their physical protection and help them to advocate for and assert their right to adequate access to justice services, as well as intensive psychosocial support to enable them cope with the different challenges that they meet in their daily lives.


Another challenge is the long waiting time for refugees to obtain their RSD, particularly Sudanese. Sudanese nationals now receive dates for their RSD interviews in 2016, literally almost three years from now.  This situation is terribly difficult, particularly for vulnerable cases. Unfortunately, for the time being, no fast track is available, except for those with serious protection or medical needs. In combination with the reduced financial assistance (provided mainly by Caritas), this long waiting period will be very difficult to cope with for asylum seekers, as they will need to find work to eke out a living, given the limited duration of financial assistance.  This is also coupled with very limited housing options in the present and tremendous increase in the value of rented accommodation.  The situation of refugees in Cairo remains gloomy and will continue to be so, until there is improvement in the overall conditions in the country. 


* In December 2013, Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA- Egypt) was merged with the Egyptian Foundation for Refugee Rights (EFRR). The merger aims at providing a more complete, integrated set of programmes to refugees and refugee communities. The resulting organisation will be the largest provider of legal aid to refugees in Egypt and one of the largest in Africa and the broader Global South.

[1] One commentator has described life for Cairo’s refugees thusly: ‘Living in poverty and without any recourse to the law, refugees eke out a hand-to-mouth existence. In these circumstances, daily life has become dangerous for the most vulnerable refugees. That some have died—and others will die—due to a lack of adequate healthcare, has been a fact of refugee life in Egypt’.  Robert Lawrence McKenzie (University of London), In the Shadows of Cairo’s Revolution: Reflections on Refugees and Their Human Rights, http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2012/02/10/february-mes-news. 

[2] See, e.g., Kagan, Mike (American University in Cairo), Shared responsibility in a new Egypt: A strategy for refugee protection, September 2011, http://www.aucegypt.edu/gapp/cmrs/documents/kaganrefugeepolicyegypt1109.pdf.

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