Refugees and asylum seekers are often excluded from the Ramadan charity circle as they wait in bureaucratic limbo
Written and photographed
by Kaylan Geiger
In the garden of Imbaba’s Swiss Club, a young Syrian girl climbed on stage and proclaimed to the crowd, “Even though I speak Arabic, no one here understands me.” She was followed by a young boy from Sudan who in Sudanese dialect lamented that his Arabic also didn’t make sense to anyone. Next came a girl from South Sudan, speaking in a South Sudanese dialect of Arabic, who said it was difficult to be accepted in this new world with its different language. Finally, a young Egyptian boy climbed the steps to the stage, and spoke to the group, explaining that, despite the difficulties, each share in being understood and accepted, they are all “brothers and sisters.”
The performance, held on June 19 as a precursor to World Refugee Day on June 20, was part of a celebration organized by Tadamon, an Egypt-based organization that works with refugees through community centers. The event was meant to celebrate diverse cultures but also acted as an expression of community for people who continue to struggle with memories of war and persecution while trying to adapt in a country that remains foreign to them.
For the more than 189,000 registered asylum seekers and refugees residing in Egypt, being the ‘other’ manifests itself in many ways. Until they are granted official refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a process that for many takes months or even years, asylum seekers live in limbo, relying on non-governmental organizations, charity groups and religious centers for aid when access to employment and education proves to be difficult and in most cases nearly impossible. Throw in language barriers and Egypt’s own fluctuating political scene tinged with xenophobia, and refugees find themselves in a day-to-day struggle with bureaucracy and discrimination.
Mahmoud, a coordinator for Tadamon, knows full well the challenges faced by the refugees he tries to help. He came to Cairo from Sudan as a refugee when he was 10 years old. “How to accept the ‘other’ is a problem here, but it is a problem everywhere,” says Mahmoud. He explains that what Tadamon tries to do through their centers is offer a sense of community by working with refugees and Egyptians. “We welcome anyone to come in.”
Despite Tadamon’s message of acceptance, Mahmoud, like other refugees, is hesitant to share his story, fearing government crackdowns on the refugee community and the aid organizations trying to help them. These agencies — mainly comprised of religious organizations, charity groups and learning centers — have had to navigate a fluctuating political environment, difficulties registering with the government and funding hardships and hazards — particularly when operating with international funding. Pointing specifically to the 2013 NGO trial that saw 43 foreign and Egyptian NGO employees sentenced to prison, every aid worker interviewed, including Mahmoud, spoke only on the condition that their names be changed and in some cases their organization not be identified.
Egypt’s refugee population continues to grow each year as a result of regional conflicts and human trafficking through the Sinai Peninsula, putting a strain on financial and material resources needed to provide for them. Despite the spirit of hospitality and charity that permeates Ramadan, Egypt’s refugee population largely goes unnoticed during the Holy Month, with the focus of donations directed largely toward Egyptians in need. Beyond material donations and volunteers, though, aid workers say refugees need compassion and understanding from the citizens in their host country.
Registering the Displaced
According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Egypt is a signatory, a refugee is a person with “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
By international law, the UNHCR is mandated to protect the rights of refugees and defend them against forced repatriation by the host country. Locally, a 1953 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Egypt made the UNHCR solely responsible for registering and determining the status of refugees in the country, based upon the principles of the 1951 convention and the 1969 Organization of African Union Refugee Convention.
It is often a time-consuming bureaucratic process. Most nationalities, including those from African countries, Iraq and elsewhere, register with the UNHCR as asylum seekers and then await an interview for Refugee Status Determination (RSD). Extreme cases, such as those who have been trafficked or smuggled against their will, are usually given an expedited process so that their status may be determined quickly.
Registered asylum seekers have the right to remain in Egypt while the UNHCR examines their case, and they are given an ID card intended to protect them from being arrested and deported for not having Egyptian visas or residency permits.
The main exception in this process is Syria: Currently, UNHCR policy allows for Syrians to be granted residency once they register with the office.
“UNHCR provides documentation which allows the asylum-seekers and refugees to reside legally in Egypt,” says an official representative from the UNHCR in an email interview. “[The UNHCR also] addresses immediate protection needs for the most vulnerable which includes food, cash, emergency shelter and medical assistance. The vulnerable categories include unaccompanied minors, women at risk, people with serious medical conditions and victims of trafficking.”
Registered asylum seekers can wait anywhere between months and years for their RSD interview. After an RSD interview with those the UNHCR deems as refugees, they are granted a right to one of three solutions: voluntary repatriation, resettlement in another country or integration into Egyptian society.
“UNHCR works to find the best solution possible for the asylum seekers and refugees and promoting integration is one of them – be it through community-based programs and help to promote co-existence, livelihood programs to enhance self-reliance, vocational training projects [or] psycho-social support,” says the UNHCR representative.
Settling at the Crossroads
Egypt has often been used as a crossroads for people seeking to relocate elsewhere, such as countries in Europe and Israel. Many of those using Egypt as a transit country may not classify as refugees by UNHCR standards and they are most often migrants seeking better employment opportunities outside their homeland. But it has become increasingly difficult to relocate elsewhere past Egypt for those who seek to do so outside of the UNHCR system. A “shoot-to-kill policy” enacted in 2005 at the Egyptian-Israeli border and the construction of a border wall by Israel has discouraged refugees and migrants from unofficially entering Israel. The route to Europe is also hazardous, and many attempting to sneak in via the Mediterranean risk being lost at sea.
The distinction between refugees and economic migrants often leads to confusion. UNHCR-recognized refugees who are granted the right to resettlement must abide by specific guidelines in order to enter into the future host country. If registered refugees seek to relocate themselves, they lose all benefits and protection given to them by UNHCR inside Egypt.
Resettlement is not a guaranteed outcome, however. “Only a small number of refugees are considered for resettlement, and the selection is decided upon by the resettlement countries – it is the last resort solution for the most vulnerable refugees,” says a representative from UNHCR.
“Maybe in the past there [was] that perception [that] you can go onto Israel [or elsewhere], but most people who are fleeing come here to escape, realize the difficulty of living here and hope for resettlement,” says Mariana, who works with refugees in Cairo. “What ends up happening is they’re forced to integrate here, and there is no option for them other than that.”
Integrating into Society
While integration is most often the only option for refugees, it is not an easy one. Most aid organizations and charity groups focus on education-based services, particularly offering English classes. As the children in Tadamon’s event pointed out, the language barriers are high, even for the refugees who speak Arabic.
The Egyptian government allows Syrians to have access to the public education system; however, after the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the media reported that many Syrian children found themselves being turned away from state-run schools.
Sudanese refugees were allowed unrestricted access in Egypt to public education, health care and employment opportunities under the Wadi El Nil agreement; however, after 1995 and the attempted assassination of then President Hosni Mubarak allegedly by Sudanese Islamists, the agreement was revoked. Now, Sudanese can enroll in Egypt’s public schools based on the availability of space, but because of different education standards between Sudan and Egypt most find themselves opting for community schools.
“Even though Sudanese are granted access to Egyptian state education the majority of them tend to enroll in the refugee community schools,” says Abdul. “These schools are cheaper … [and] the majority of the African refugee population in Egypt prefer sending their children to refugee community schools.”
For refugees who do not speak Arabic, such as Ethiopians and Eritreans, community schools are their only option.
Adult refugees also face similar hardships, particularly those coming from non-Arabic speaking countries, and many rely on English classes for access to employment. For those that are unable to find employment, English classes and these community schools provide the only sense of social stability they have, as the cash assistance programs that do exist cover only the bare minimum — enough money for rent and food.
“Education is the only option to have something to do,” says Mariana. “[Some] people manage to find some sort of work, very simple work, but I think people see education as an alternative option in [obtaining] extra skills.”
In terms of charity for both Syrians and refugees from Iraq, African countries and elsewhere, aside from the bureaucratic processes of acceptance they face, the organizations that serve them often face difficulties in terms of funding and resources. A lot of organizations and religious groups rely on grant funding and private donations, as well as volunteers — both foreign and Egyptian. That support is not easily to come by, even during the Holy Month.
“Egyptians tend to allocate funds for other needy Egyptians in Ramadan,” says Abdul, who works with refugees in an aid organization. “A very narrow segment of the Egyptian population is aware of the presence of … refugees in Egypt and consider them as immigrants who came to Egypt looking for better jobs rather than people who escaped disasters and oppression.”
Jonathan, who works for African Hope, a charity organization that provides education for African refugees, says, “Egyptians are definitely more charitable during Ramadan, but this does not translate [into] work towards the refugees. Some Egyptians are aware of the issue and are wonderful, but many resent them being here.” Jonathan says the lack of awareness among Egyptians is understandable considering the circumstances facing the population, but he argues “a lot more help could also be given to these guests in your country.”
While access to education and employment represent a big hurdle for refugees trying to integrate, those problems are coupled with a general xenophobia in Egypt exacerbated by the political events of the past three years.
“Egyptians fall under two categories when it comes to their views on refugees,” says Mariana. “Mostly they are not aware that refugees are here … alternatively there are a lot of people that are racist against [refugees] which stems from a lack of education as to why refugees are [in the country].”
Despite efforts by Tadamon which works with both Egyptians and refugees to build community ties and other organizations, racism, prejudice towards refugees or a lack of understanding of the situation is commonplace.
“African refugees in Egypt face more [challenges] than just seeking jobs or education,” explains Abdul. “They are people who were forced to leave their country to a place they never imagined they would live in only to find people harassing them in the streets and gazes chasing them wherever they go, causing many of them to develop acceptance and trust issues. The situation demands huge efforts to raise the Egyptian people’s awareness about the damage they’re unintentionally doing.”
Mariana says that those Egyptians who recognize the refugee situation see asylum seekers as drains on the economy as Egyptian nationals continue to struggle with unemployment. She explains that refugees are too often considered an “annoyance” by Egyptians and aid organizations, as refugees often become dependent on aid when they are unable to integrate into society and find a stable income. “A lot of the time the humanity of [the refugee population] gets lost … that’s the biggest tragedy,” says Mariana.
“They’ve gone through hell in their home countries – torture, rape, watching family members shot – then they come somewhere where they are unwelcome and constantly discriminated against,” Mariana explains. “A refugee once told me ‘sometimes I think of going back to my home country because there I know will die, but here I don’t know my future and that is almost more scary’.” et
Where do refugees come from?
The influx of Syrian refugees into surrounding countries has attracted some attention to the dilemma of refugees coming to Egypt. Also, a February 2014 Human Rights Watch report called for Egyptian and Sudanese officials to put an end to the torture and smuggling of Eritreans in Sinai by human traffickers, drawing attention to displaced peoples who were forced here against their will and are unable to return back home. But aid workers say that Egyptians are largely unaware of the circumstances that drive refugees from their homelands.
According to UNHCR statistics, as of April 2014 there were 189,050 registered asylum seekers and refugees residing in Egypt. Syrians account for the largest percentage of refugees in Egypt, followed by asylum seekers and refugees from Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Ethiopia and Eritrea among others.
Syria: The region’s most high-profile conflict, now in its third year, accounts for the largest group of recognized refugees in Egypt, with 138,000 Syrians registered with UNHCR.
Sudan: Refugees from Sudan, Darfur and South Sudan have been fleeing violent conflict as a result of on and off civil wars that have persisted since Sudan’s independence in 1956. Violence and genocide in Darfur has killed thousands, and now the recently independent South Sudan is in the grips of a violent internal power struggle.
Somalia: The ongoing violence since the Somali government’s collapse in 1991, perpetrated by the militant Islamist group Al-Shabaab, has driven thousands from this state over the years.
Ethiopia and Eritrea: While these two countries were at war from 1998 to 2000, the conflict between their governments remains cold. Eritrea, often referred to as the “North Korea of Africa,” also remains within the grips of an oppressive regime with a poor human rights record. Many attempting to flee from persecution in Ethiopia and Eritrea end up in Egypt as a last resort or at the hands of human traffickers who hold them for ransom, sell them to other traffickers and physically torture them.
Iraq: Iraqi refugees fleeing the war brought about by the United States and coalition forces’ 2003 invasion mostly resettled in neighboring countries; however, at the height of violence in 2006, Iraqis travelled en-masse to Egypt. Amnesty International reported that the number of Iraqis in Egypt as a result of the war reached 150,000, but only several thousand registered as asylum seekers with the UNHCR.
Tadamon Council (tadamoncouncil.org) community centers offer language classes, vocational training, counseling and other activities. Volunteers are welcome.
Refuge Egypt (refuge-egypt.org), which offers adult education classes, medical services and assists with finding employment for refugees. Volunteers are welcome.
Catholic Relief Services (crs.org/countries/egypt) offers livelihood assistance and educational programs to help refugees integrate.
African Hope (africanhopelc.com) run learning centers for refugee children from the African continent. Volunteers are needed as English tutors and in community and development projects.
The International Refugee Rights Initiative (refugee-rights.org) promotes human rights and the protection of refugees fleeing conflict, with a large focus on Africa. Donations are accepted.
CARE (careinternational.org.uk), which provides Syrian refugees with psychosocial assistance, accepts donations through their website.
UNHCR (unhcr.org) accepts donations through its website. Volunteers with experience working with refugees mayinquire at the agency’s office in 6 October City.