CAIRO, 28 February 2013 (IRIN) - Osman Sheshy*, a 26-year-old refugee from Eritrea living in the Egyptian capital, remembers fondly the day three months ago when a wealthy Egyptian man asked him to clean his villa for 50 Egyptian pounds (US$7.3).
He has not worked since, though not for want of trying: He spends his days knocking on the doors of houses, firms, factories and workshops to beg for work.
“I urgently need work to feed my family, but this work has become impossible to find here,” the father of two told IRIN. “We stick to buying the basics, but these basics become harder to get each day.”
The political turmoil and deep economic crisis in Egypt, which has been hit by a slump in tourism, low investment and rising food prices, is hurting the country’s most vulnerable communities.
Monthly inflation in January was up 1.7 percent according to the Central Bank of Egypt. The current annual inflation rate is 6.3 percent.
African refugee rights’ groups say refugees and migrants are frequently the victims of unprovoked arrests and disappearances, while also struggling to feed themselves and pay rent.
“Life in Egypt for refugees has moved from bad to worse after the revolution,” said Aly Mahmud, a Sudanese refugee and the founder of the Makarem African Society, an NGO that tries to help refugees find jobs.
“As Egypt's economy shrinks, the refugees find it more difficult to earn a living or even lead a dignified life.”
As of January 2013, the number of African refugees officially registered in Egypt was 35,180, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
African refugees and economic migrants generally live in Cairo's toughest neighbourhoods, sharing dirty toilets and stinking alleyways with Egypt’s poorest citizens.
“The refugees have been affected in the same way that Egyptians have been affected,” Elizabeth Tan, deputy regional representative of UNHCR, told IRIN. “Refugees often complain about an increase in crime and the increase in the cost of living.”
Abdullah Hanzal, director of refugee NGO Sudan Centre for Contemporary Studies, said research they had conducted in January found that most African refugees in Egypt had lost their jobs since the revolution.
“Refugees who sell on the streets said they had to stay on the streets longer to sell their wares,” Hanzal said. “And when these refugees sell everything, the money is not nearly enough to buy food for their families.”
Aly Mahmud, the founder of the Makarem African Society, has three friends who could not pay 200 Egyptian pounds (US$29) to rent a shared room in the poor Giza Governorate neighbourhood of Ard Al Liwa and were kicked out as a result.
“They spend the nights at coffee shops and the days in public gardens,” Mahmud said. “My three friends are single, but the situation is even more difficult for refugee families that fail to pay the rent.”
Local aid groups are also feeling the pinch, said Tareg Nour, executive director of Tadamon, an NGO that works to promote the welfare of marginalized refugees. “Funding no longer comes, because donors do not want to give money to organizations in countries where there is all this turmoil.”
UNHCR says applications for financial support from refugees increased substantially after the revolution. UNHCR is able to give financial support to only 25 percent of the 35,180 African refugees.
“Unfortunately, UNHCR's budget has not increased to take into consideration the increase in the cost of living,” Tan said. “But the office will be supporting grassroots and community-based initiatives in order to enhance self-reliance and income generation efforts to be implemented by the refugees.”
Organ theft risk
Hanzel says African refugees and economic migrants are prone to the most brutal forms of exploitation, including organ theft.
“A marked increase - spearheaded by traders who exploit Egypt's bad security conditions - in organ theft cases has happened after the revolution,” said Bashir Suleiman, a reporter for Coalition for Organ Failure Solutions (COFS), an international NGO that identifies survivors of organ trafficking and tries to provide long-term support.
“Most refugees are deceived by organ trafficking gangs who hang out among refugees,” he told IRIN.
Tan said UNHCR is aware of reports of organ trafficking in Egypt and has been in dialogue with the government. “The refugees are particularly vulnerable to this kind of exploitation,” she said.
“Unfortunately, a large number of the refugees who come to us were subject to organ theft, even without knowing it,” Suleiman said. “Refugee kidneys, tissues, uteruses, ovaries and other organs are high on the list of stolen organs.”
*not his real name