Flight to Egypt
By Jeff Crisp
While a great deal of international attention has been given to the massive number of Syrian refugees who have crossed into Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, it is often forgotten that many Syrians – up to 300,000 according to some estimates – have made the somewhat longer journey to the nearby state of Egypt.
Initially welcomed, Egypt’s Syrian refugee population is now confronted with more restrictive visa and residence regulations, as well as difficulties accessing employment, education, and healthcare. A growing number of the refugees have tried to escape these conditions by leaving Egypt by boat. Of the hundreds who have been shipwrecked, some have drowned and others have been rescued but detained back in Egypt.
The Syrians in Cairo and other urban areas of Egypt have joined a longstanding refugee population (primarily from the Horn of Africa and Iraq) that has been increasingly vulnerable since the Mubarak regime was toppled three years ago. Those from non-Arab countries such as Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan have been seriously underserved and socially marginalized for even longer.
In order to gain a better understanding of the situation of Syrian and other refugees in Egypt, my Refugees International colleague and I are on a two-week fact-finding mission to the country, visiting Cairo, Alexandria, and Damietta. The mission will focus on three principal themes.
First, we will look at how the Syrian refugee population is faring in terms of their protection. Are Syrians still able to enter Egypt freely? And once they are in the country, can they gain the residence rights and documentation that they need? The mission will also seek to determine the extent to which Syrian refugees face protection threats such as eviction, exploitation, deportation, gender-based violence, police harassment, and animosity from the local population. In this respect, RI will be looking at the specific difficulties confronting refugee women, men, girls, boys, youth, and older people.
A second purpose of the mission will be to assess whether Syrian refugees can access essential services, establish sustainable livelihoods, and find adequate shelter. RI’s initial research suggests that Syrians are finding it very difficult to compete for jobs in Egypt’s tight labor market, and that they are having to spend a disproportionate amount of their limited income on accommodation. With any resources that they brought with them now depleted, how are they going to survive in the future, given that the Syrian conflict seems highly unlikely to come to a speedy end?
Third, the mission will try to gain a better understanding of how the Syrian influx has affected the other refugees living in Egypt. Have the existing services available to them become even more stretched? Has it become more difficult for them to earn a living wage? And to what extent has public opinion hardened against refugees, now that their numbers are so much greater?
As well as addressing these and other questions about the situation of refugees in Egypt, our mission will make a variety of recommendations to those stakeholders who have the greatest impact on the lives of Syrian and other refugees: national and local authorities, donor states, non-governmental organizations, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Particular attention will be given to the extent to which UNHCR has been able to implement its urban refugee policy. That policy emphasizes effective outreach to refugees living in cities in towns, as well as the integration of urban refugees into the same services available to the host population.
RI Senior Advocate Daryl Grisgraber and I will be blogging from Egypt over the next two weeks. Keep an eye on this site for updates.