Two weeks ago I visited Egypt to speak to some of the many refugees who have sought shelter there from violence and persecution. I met with refugees from Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. Despite the diverse range of countries they come from, the refugees I spoke with and the aid workers who assist them all raised similar concerns.
While refugees deeply appreciate the fact that Egypt has extended them shelter from persecution, they also expressed distress about the difficulties they face: cuts in food and other assistance, problems relating to education and quality health care, the visa regime and border practices that lead Egypt to turn away refugees in search of protection, the detention of refugees attempting to leave the country by boat, the slow pace of resettlement, and a wide range of threats to physical safety—from xenophobic attacks, to sexual assaults, to threats and kidnappings by traffickers and smugglers.
About 3000 refugees were held in detention in Egypt 2014. Some were caught trying to enter Egypt along the southern Sudanese border, and are detained in military facilities near the border. Some are quickly sent back to Sudan.
The number of Syrians now seeking refuge in Egypt has fallen and remains very low since Egypt introduced visa requirements for Syrians seeking to enter the country in July 2013. As one monitoring group noted, Egypt’s borders have essentially been closed to Syrian refugees since that time. Egypt hosts about 136,000 registered Syrian refugees, though that number is likely to dip as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) conducts registration verification. These visa barriers are not only turning away refugees in search of protection, they are also preventing some Syrian refugees from reuniting with their families who have previously fled to Egypt.
More than 1400 Syrian men, women, and children were detained in Egypt in 2014 after attempting to leave the country by boat. Operating out of Alexandria, boats arranged by smugglers carry refugees across the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece. Most Syrian refugees are now released from detention within about 10 days, but some are held longer. Palestinians from Syria face particular challenges securing release and protection in Egypt.
Despite the documented abuses inflicted on Eritrean and Sudanese refugees by human traffickers operating in Sinai, traffickers and smugglers continue to prey on refugees of various nationalities in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt. One refugee was kidnapped and held for over a year while traffickers tried to extort money from his brother who lives in a wealthy country. In another case, a trafficker threatened to kidnap a couple’s baby as part of his extortion demands.
As refugees themselves told us, one of their biggest problems is the lack of physical security. They are often targeted because they are refugees and foreigners. Perpetrators of attacks and robbery know that they will not be prosecuted for crimes against refugees and immigrants. Some refugees told us that if they go to police stations, they will be the ones investigated rather than the criminals. Several African refugees complained that they are harassed in the streets and called “nigges” and “lost boys.” Refugee children are also sometimes attacked, beaten and robbed. LGBT refugees in Egypt find themselves doubly marginalized and targeted.
Women are particularly vulnerable to violence and exploitation. One Syrian woman told us “women are raped in Syria, on the way to Egypt, and in Egypt.” The numbers are believed to be high but women are afraid to report incidents. African refugees and aid workers told us that refugee women are often abused when they work in Egyptian homes as domestic workers. Some are raped, some beaten, and some are denied payment for time worked.
Refugees of multiple nationalities, including some who had faced political persecution in their home countries, reported that they were followed, monitored, or targeted by agents of their own governments in Egypt.
There is much that the United States and other donor states can do to help address these challenges. Donor states should step up contributions to humanitarian appeals, so that the cuts in assistance to refugees in Egypt and elsewhere can be reversed. More resources and attention should be directed towards education and higher education.
Egypt is a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its Protocol, and donor states should make clear that they expect Egypt to allow refugees fleeing persecution to enter at their borders and airports. Egypt should also allow refugees with family in the country to enter and be united with them. Donor states should continue to monitor Egypt’s detention of Syrian and African refugees, and should press for refugees to be promptly released.
Through diplomacy, assistance, and specially designed programs, the United States and other countries should support improved police protection for refugees and immigrants in Egypt. The police should investigate and refer for prosecution crimes perpetrated against refugees and immigrants, even when the perpetrators are Egyptians. Smugglers and traffickers—including those who are Egyptian—should be investigated and prosecuted. More should be invested in programs that help support and protect victims of crimes so that they can report incidents and be safeguarded from retribution.
At the same time, given the dire threats to physical security facing refugees in Egypt, more must be invested in emergency protection initiatives. These include scattered housing, transfer to emergency transit facilities outside the country, and more spots allocated for the expedited resettlement of individuals facing imminent threats, including victims of trafficking, severe medical cases, LGBT refugees, Christian converts, and others who face grave threats.
The pace of resettlement to the United States in general needs to be improved. Refugees who have already been waiting years to be referred into the resettlement pipeline often wait a year and a half or more for their applications to be processed. Many face grave risks while they await completion of resettlement processing—like victims of trafficking who are still being chased by their traffickers and children with life threatening illness who may die while awaiting completion of their processing.
Egypt, like other refugee host countries, faces many challenges of its own, including challenges relating to the quality of health care and to the economy. However, it can and should uphold its international and moral obligations to safeguard refugees from return to persecution, and from violence and arbitrary detention within its borders. Donor and resettlement countries should put measures to help refugees in Egypt higher on their priority lists, and step up activities that help provide life-saving protection to refugees facing grave risks.