While Egypt is generally viewed as a transit hub for refugees on their way to the West, tens of thousands of Syrians are here to stay.
By Ahmed Mansour
There are around 127,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and more than 50,000 African and Iraqi refugees in Egypt, says UNHCR Senior External Relations and Communications Officer Ragnhild Ek. Most of Syrian refugees are concentrated in Greater Cairo, Alexandria and Damietta, and others are scattered all over the country.
On its part, the Egyptian government estimates that at least 300,000 Syrians came to Egypt after the crisis erupted in 2011, and Ek says most of them arrived before the government imposed a visa restriction in July 2013. Afterward, she says, the number of Syrian refugees “dropped dramatically.”
“Egypt has for years been a departure point for Europe by the sea. Since 2013, there has been an increase in such irregular departures to Europe,” Ek says. “Syrians are among the nationalities which attempt to leave to Europe irregularly.” Through their resettlement services, UNHCR Egypt will submit 5,500 refugees, including 3,500 Syrian refugees, for resettlement in 2015.
In this sense, Egypt is usually seen by refugees as a transit country on their way to more developed final destinations. Ek notes, however, that irregular migration (resettlement) is a “complex issue which requires a holistic, multifaceted approach that takes into consideration the national interests of states as well as the protection needs of people on the move.” Still, she adds that UNHCR is encouraged by the “pro-active approach Egypt is showing in hosting and providing leadership in multilateral dialogue with East and Horn of African states as well as with the EU.”
The UNHCR registers and conducts refugee status determination (RSD) for asylum seekers in Egypt according to the 1954 Memorandum of Understanding with the Egyptian government. Syrian refugees approach the UNHCR offices in either Cairo or Alexandria with their family to register. Provided they have their identity documentation with them, after the registration process is done, they receive an asylum-seeker card, commonly known as the “yellow card,” which they can use to receive a residency permit from the department of passports and immigration in Mogamma El-Tahrir.
“Unfortunately many Syrians have lost hope in finding a near solution to the Syria crisis. Every refugee has dreams and aspirations just like you and I. They seek to accomplish the basic dream of a secure place and future for their children, in terms of good education and healthcare,” Ek says.
But not all Syrian refugees want to leave Egypt, and some have chosen to settle in the country as their new home. Mohamed Murad, a husband and father of two, is one such case. He was among the first that came to Egypt as soon as the war started in Syria. “I fled with my family to Egypt as soon as I got the chance. The way the media presented the political situation in Egypt made me believe that I was running from one warzone to another. Yet as soon as I reached Cairo I actually found that the country was somehow stable. I decided that I’d stay in Egypt and work on creating a life for myself here. I came from Syria by bus and the government allowed us to pass the borders with a three-month permit that could be renewed,” says Murad.
Upon arrival to Cairo, Murad settled in Sixth of October City, where a community of Syrians has sprung up in recent years. “Little Damascus,” as it has become known, feels like a small part of Syria, with shawerma stands on every corner and displays dedicated to selling Syrian staples.
Yet with an official unemployment rate of 13.4%, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics in Egypt, making a living in Egypt is not easy for the local population or, of course, for refugees.
“As soon as I got settled by renting a place in Sixth of October City, I started looking for a job that best suited my experience. I graduated from the faculty of civil engineering in Damascus, and I have over 15 years of work experience, but whenever I try to apply for a job, no firm hires me,” Murad says, adding that he believes it is because he does not have the right paperwork. “I decided that I will leave what I have learned behind, and start something that will help me make a living. And so my wife and I decided to work on offering catering services,” added Murad.
Many Syrians have used their life savings to flee Syria and enter Egypt, but after years of living in exile with no access to legal or regular work, most refugees have managed to deplete their resources, and thus tend to create their own jobs, Ek says.
But competition among the Syrian community is high. Offerings of Syrian cuisine, a straightforward choice for many refugees, have become an ubiquitous sight in Egypt, particularly in Sixth of October City and other destinations that have become popular with Syrians such as Rehab City and Madinaty. “My husband and I are working very hard to make it here. Egypt is not an easy country to get settled into, and with the amount of competition that we see almost every day in Cairo, especially in Sixth of October City, we are not making enough money compared to the effort that we put into our work. Still, we do thank God every day that we are alive and that our family is safe,” says Randa Hussien, Murad’s wife.
“Due to the fact that refugees and asylum seekers cannot access legal employment in Egypt, they only have access to informal employment,” Ek says. Some Syrians have managed to establish small businesses and found ways of making a living, but for others it is difficult to make ends meet if they don’t get help from UNHCR and its partners who provide some vocational training and micro grants in order to assist Syrian and other refugees to achieve self-reliance.
Even Syrians who are not refugees, and who came to Egypt quite a while back, still find it hard to make ends meet. One such case is Nadia Saeed, a Syrian who has been living in Cairo for the past 25 years. She got married to an Egyptian man when she came, but when he passed away three years ago, she found that she could not go back with her children to her war-torn homeland.
“I’m a mother of four, and I’m not educated, so I find it really hard to find a job that would help me support my family, plus I had to move from my home to another because we couldn’t afford it anymore. Finally, when I decided to leave the country and go live with the rest of my family, the war broke out in Syria. Now I’m stuck here in Cairo supporting my family with the little money that my husband’s relatives send monthly. I really do wish things get better in Syria, but I always wondered how the refugees manage to create a decent life here with no support from the government,” she says. “I know nothing about my family in Syria, whether they are alive or dead and they know nothing about me either, to the extent that if they were in Egypt they wouldn’t know where I live.”
Finding education for their children is also not an easy matter for Syrian refugees in Egypt, particularly if they lack the required paperwork, which many Syrians here do. “Right now our children are being homeschooled until I can validate my stay with the government here in Egypt. After I do, I’ll be able to enroll them in any public school in Cairo,” says Murad.
In coordination with the Egyptian government, the UNHCR provides healthcare assistance through local health facilities, education grants and vocational training. Financial assistance is granted to the most vulnerable Syrian refugees (with stipends of LE 400 to LE 1200) and, according to Ek, more than 31,000 Syrian refugees receive such support, in addition to 53,000 Syrians who receive World Food Programme vouchers.
Yet when considering that there are more than 300,000 Syrian refugees in the country, these numbers do not seem so significant. Ek concedes that the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations are going through funding shortfalls and therefore face limitations on the aid they can give.
While the UNHCR has praised the Egyptian government for granting access to public schools and health facilities to Syrian refugees on an equal footing with Egyptian nationals, she says the UNHCR hopes that the Egyptian authorities would consider “decentralizing the issuing of the residencies for refugees and asylum seekers, particularly to Alexandria where a third of Syrians live, in order to save them time and transportation expenses,” adding that extending the validity of residency from six months to one year would also significantly help refugees. The government’s further expansion and acceleration of issuing family unity visas for many refugee families who have been separated for a long time, would also be helpful, she says.
“What is as important as providing shelter and food is the psychological rehabilitation, which is a humanitarian responsibility on behalf of the hosting countries to allow the refugees to get back to their normal lives,” AUC associate professor of psychology Hani Henry said at last month’s “Future of Syrian Refugees” roundtable. “For the Syrians settling in Europe, do the hosting countries put into consideration the refugees’ culture and religion? Children are going to these countries with traumas, are these countries ready for the refugees? If rehabilitation is not offered, then such a situation will likely create ticking bombs in these countries.”
Here in Egypt, this is not a major concern, with Syrians sharing the same language and broad cultural and religious beliefs as the local population. It’s likely that this is one reason Egypt was a favorable destination for Syrians once neighboring Jordan and Lebanon closed their borders to migrants and refugees. Indeed many Syrians who have settled in Egypt are finding it welcoming, despite economic obstacles.
“I’m truly grateful for all the help Egyptians have offered me ever since I came here,” says Murad. “I really do wish the Arab governments unite as the Arab people have united.”