When a Sudanese young man complained about his life as a refugee in Egypt, he was asked why he didn’t go back to his home country. “Any hardship I face in Egypt; be it exhaustion, intolerance or limited opportunity, is nothing compared with a bullet in my chest amid the armed conflict in my war-torn country,” he replied. This sums up the situation of those who flee wars in their homelands. Whether they choose Egypt as a place to settle down and make a new home or as a country of transit where they wait for their refugee visas to be processed, the fact remains that Egypt has historically welcomed those seeking refuge and has always provided a safe shelter.
Egypt is home to refugees belonging to more than 36 nationalities. Many of them have entered through Egypt’s northeast border and are for the most part Palestinians, Iraqis and Syrian nationals. Other refugees cross Egypt’s southern border with Sudan, the main entry point for African refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. With the escalation in civil wars, political conflicts, persecutions, natural disasters and economic crises in Egypt’s neighbours, the number of refugees is on the rise.
There are factors that play a pivotal role in attracting refugees to Egypt. These include its relative stability, safety, affordability, and the social, linguistic and cultural harmony with Egyptians in general. However, the constant rise in the number of refugees year in year out constitutes a burden on Egypt’s economy and inevitably affects the social services offered to native Egyptians and the social assistance given to those on low incomes.
In principle, Egypt has endorsed several international conventions guaranteeing the basic rights of refugees. Egypt and Turkey are the only two countries among the 26 Middle Eastern States who participated in the Geneva Conference of plenipotentiaries who drafted and signed the 1951 Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Egypt is also a signatory of other refugee-related conventions such as the African Union’s Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (1969); the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948); the four Geneva Conventions (1949) which establish the standards of international law for the humanitarian treatment of war; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965, entered in force 1969); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979, entered in force 1981); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966, entered in force 1976); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966, entered in force 1976); and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1998, entered in force 2005).
Refugees should not engage in any activity that might harm the interests of their host country. Despite this, for the last five years Egypt has faced problems with some refugees, especially Islamist Syrians, engaging in political activities that threaten national safety and stability.
Neither hostile nor political
It is worth noting that receiving refugees from another country is not considered a political action against the country of the refugees’ origin. On the contrary, Article 2 of the African Union’s Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa stipulates: “The granting of asylum to refugees is a peaceful and humanitarian act and shall not be regarded as an unfriendly act by any Member State.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) latest figures announced in October 2015 (www.unhcr.org) indicate that the number of refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt reached 187,753, most of whom were Syrians (127,681) and Sudanese (27,407). However the real figures, according to Tadamon—the Egyptian Refugee Multicultural Council, the largest NGO focusing on refugee affairs in Egypt—could be as high as three million, based on estimates collected from different local NGOs. Tadamon attributes the reason for the conflicting figures on the different legal definitions of a refugee and the refusal of a large number of refugees to register with organisations handling refugee affairs.
Egypt formerly exempted Sudanese nationals from the requirement of a residence permit, especially those fleeing the regime of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese army brigadier who came to power after he led a military coup in 1989. Sudanese nationals were allowed to live in Egypt without registering as refugees until the attempted assassination of President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995, which the Sudanese government was accused of plotting. This led the Egyptian government to impose restrictions on the entry of Sudanese nationals into Egypt. New regulations were issued requiring all Sudanese who settled in Egypt to have residence permits that would be renewed annually, just like all other foreigners living in Egypt.
Sudanese refugees kept coming to Egypt, whether fleeing regional armed conflicts as in Darfur or escaping the declining economic conditions and tight security grip imposed on supporters of the Sudanese opposition.
It is not easy for the Sudanese who come to Egypt. Apart from the suffering of being in a strange country and having no means for a decent life, the Sudanese face the agony of racial discrimination and exclusion practised against them by many Egyptians.
At a meeting in a Cairo church for young Sudanese aged between 20 and 25, Watani met Aziza Soliman who had fled with her mother from the armed conflict at home. They viewed Egypt as a transit country and hoped to go on to join relatives in Norway; they were counting on the help of the UNHCR but they had not yet been given any assistance. Aziza said she was unable to find a decent job, and that the only openings for Sudanese women were limited to housekeeping or babysitting. Sudanese and other people of colour opting for such work were often mistreated.
Another young Sudanese man in his early twenties, Asrar Mustafa, told Watani that the Sudanese community in Egypt faced security problems on the street, sometimes even physical assault. “Egyptians discriminate against us although we consider ourselves at home,” he said. “I am personally trying to cope with the situation until I get approval for the US Refugee Admission Program.”
An older man, Othman Saleh, confirmed that there was widespread racism against Sudanese nationals in Egypt. Even those who hold university degrees fail to find jobs that meet their qualifications and have to make do with jobs as cleaners or porters. This contrasts with other nationalities such as Syrians. “Even if we manage to find a decent job, we are also discriminated against with respect to salaries compared with refugees of other nationalities,” he says. “This is why we rely on aid from organisations like Caritas, which gives us a monthly allowance of EGP800, a sum not enough even to pay rent for a single room. So most refugees live in slums and poor neighbourhoods.”
Nizar, another Sudanese refugee, says that living in poor areas makes Sudanese children liable to bullying, especially on their way to and from school, when they are called names with racist connotation such as Samara (blackie) or Chocolata (chocolate).
Samia Abdel-Mawla, a Sudanese refugee, told Watani of the racist behaviour her small son encountered at an Egyptian government school.
“I enrolled my son in a nursery and when I went to pick him up I found other children insulting him just because he was dark-skinned. I asked the teacher to do something, but she just ignored the whole matter,” she said. “I had to take him out of school altogether.”
Not all Sudanese refugees, however, are peaceful. In derelict districts on the outermost periphery of Cairo where rents are cheap and police almost non-existent, Sudanese form street gangs with names such as the Outlaws or the Lost Boys or Lost Girls. Armed with machetes, they rob and slaughter other refugees who have work and money. They pressure their peers to join the gangs, and have been known to threaten and even brutally attack those who do not wish to join. The gang activity has been ongoing since the 2000s; Roba Gibia who was stationed in Cairo in 2007 / 2008 as GoSS Consulate Administrator wrote in detail about the gruesome activity of these gangs in Watani:
Throughout history, people living around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East: Phoenicians, Hebrews, Turks, Greeks and Armenians, found refuge in Egypt at times of trouble. They worked as artisans or opened their own businesses, earning the respect of Egyptians for their hard work and dedication. Eventually, they blended with the Egyptian community, marrying and intermarrying, and forming families that knew no home other than Egypt.
Now the Syrians are fleeing their war-torn country and coming to Egypt carrying a few belongings and what money they managed to salvage. Some consider Egypt a transit post to Europe, but most see no alternative but to stay in Egypt.
The influx began when the 2011 Syrian Arab Spring escalated into civil war. At the time Syrians were permitted to enter Egypt without visas. Egypt was then going through its own Arab Spring which led to the election of an Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime in June 2012, and in turn encouraged many Islamist Syrians to come to Egypt. On 30 June 2013, however, a massive, million-strong rebellion broke out in Egypt against the Islamists and the military stepped in to prevent civil war. They overthrew the Islamists and Egypt went on to a build a civil State. The Islamists, however, retaliated with violent demonstrations and terrorist acts. Unfortunately many of the Islamist Syrians in Egypt joined in the violence and terrorism, so in July 2013 visa-free entry of Syrians into Egypt was annulled. This allowed security checks on incoming Syrians and, since then, the majority of Syrians coming to Egypt have been peaceful, non-violent, hard-working individuals or entire families.
Syrian refugees settled in several places in Egypt. The economic standard, nature of work available, and the aid offered to refugees vary according to location, hence the concentration of Syrians in specific neighbourhoods. An added complication, however, is that many families no longer have a breadwinner—the fathers and sons have lost their lives in the war or been detained. Many women and children have fled the war together or alone. Despite these women’s willingness to work and support their families, many are old and employers refuse to hire them. They therefore rely on the aid granted to them by government, NGO and international relief agencies; some of them even receive aid from other wealthy Syrians living in Egypt. But the increase of living costs in Egypt in the past year has left many with no other option but to work as street vendors or beg on the streets.
Some Syrian businessmen have opened factories in Egypt, although their number has decreased because of tight investment regulations and the residence permit and entry visa requirements now imposed on Syrians. Their contribution is limited to providing jobs for the Syrians who live in Egypt.
The sprawling satellite town of 6 October west of Cairo is a location popular with Syrians. There they opened middle-class restaurants and coffee shops that enjoy excellent reputation and draw a large clientele. They hire young Syrians living in the area.
Another Cairo populous neighbourhood, Masaken Othman, offers houses at remarkably cheap rent but it is regarded as unsafe and full of Egyptian, Syrian and Sudanese outlaws and drug dealers. Many Syrians have left it to safer areas to avoid problems.
The eastern Cairo suburbs of Ain Shams, Gisr al-Suez, al-Hilmiya and al-Matariya rank right after 6 October with respect to the number of Syrian refugee residents. Syrians who live in these neighbourhoods manage to find jobs because the areas are lower middle class, densely populated, include commercial areas and restaurants; coffee shops; clothing factories; sewing, embroidery, metalwork, and carpentry workshops; and all kinds of crafts and trades. Here Syrians can find work or rent shops and workshops to open their own businesses. Add to this that the price of commodities such as fruit, vegetables and meat are in general cheaper than in other places, these suburbs offer a life for Syrian refugees.
Upper-class Syrian refugees, mainly traders and businessmen, prefer new developments such as the upscale al-Rehab or the higher-middle class First Settlement, east of Cairo. Again, they have excelled in the trade and restaurant businesses.
The presence of Syrians in the older Cairo’s upscale neighbourhoods such as Heliopolis, Zamalek, Dokki and Mohandeseen is minimal, except for some wealthy businessmen who are accustomed to a certain standard of living.
Outside Cairo, dozens of Syrian families have settled in the Suez-Canal governorate of Ismailia which is considered a quiet, uncrowded and cheap area. There they enjoy good living conditions.
Alexandria governorate on Egypt’s north Mediterranean coast is known for its dense population and abundant job opportunities. Tens of thousands of Syrians live in Alexandria and work in upmarket Syrian restaurants and workshops. In general, Alexandria is a touristic area very favourable for medium-sized businesses which makes it a sought after area for Syrians.
Hundreds of Syrian families live in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya. These are often the poorest refugees and are frequently in need of continuous material and medical aid.
Taken advantage of
Abu Ghiath Muhammad, owner of a Syrian restaurant, says he came to Egypt about seven months ago, carrying whatever money he could salvage from his war-torn country. He took advice from Syrian friends who had preceded him to Egypt and settled in 6 October City, using his money to open a restaurant. He believes it is perfectly normal to hire Syrians to work in his restaurant. In fact, more than 90 per cent of the Syrians in Egypt work in Syrian-owned shops. He is outraged by Egyptians who accuse Syrians of stripping them of their businesses.
Another Syrian refugee who goes by the name Abu-Tareq and owns a restaurant says that he bought his restaurant legally and of the Egyptian vendor’s free will. Egypt is a competitive place and it is normal for Syrians who live in a strange land to feel that they must prove themselves. He is offended by Egyptians who wish to take advantage of him, such as those who sell him food supplies for his restaurant at high prices. He is also offended by those who say that Syrians are the reason for the increase in house and flat rents; he attributes this to the greed of house owners who raise the prices for Syrians causing thus a spiral in rents.
20 April 2016