When Syrian refugees first arrived in Egypt, they were welcomed as brothers and sisters who, just like their hosts, sought freedom from an oppressive regime. Syrian nationals were given visa-free entry, access to public healthcare, and the ability to send their children to school—rights not available to the longstanding Sudanese and Somali refugee populations in Egypt.
The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has registered 105,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt, but some estimates suggest that the number is closer to 300,000. The neighborhood of October 6, once a temporary home for many Iraqi refugees, quickly came to be known as “Little Damascus,” and featured traditional Syrian restaurants and sweets shops.
But that initial camaraderie gradually faded. The Syrian refugee community found itself caught in the middle of internal political battles as many Egyptians came to perceive Syrians as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On June 15, then-President Mohamed Morsi took part in a mass demonstration to show solidarity with Syria’s opposition in an attempt to rally the support of his Islamist allies and bolster his unpopular presidency. He shared the podium with hardline Sunni clerics who called for holy war in Syria. For many Egyptians, this was a moment when the Syrian refugee community and the Morsi presidency fused together in their consciousness as a single radical Islamist force. “The Syrians were used as a political pawn,” Zeinab, a Syrian community organizer in Cairo told The Guardian. “What that speech did was side thousands of Syrians inside Egypt with one faction against another. We were mortified.”
The refugee community quickly became a scapegoat for Morsi’s opponents. After the July military coup, the new Egyptian government and its supporters began to claim that Egypt’s internal divisions were a foreign import from Syria. Some television channels suggested that pro-Morsi sit-ins were packed with Syrians. (Syrian activists suggest that charities providing housing to the poorest refugees forced them to attend these sit-ins.) Days after Morsi’s ouster, men armed with clubs and knives stormed a charity for Syrian refugees. Syrians were also blamed for taking already-scarce jobs from Egyptian citizens. Human rights groups had previously raised concerns about xenophobic and racist harassment and violence in Egypt against refugees and migrants from elsewhere in Africa, but the targeting of Syrians was new.
UNHCR has described the Syrian crisis as “unparalleled in recent history,” yet after its initial welcome, Egypt tightened its border in an effort to keep refugees out. Only five days after the Egyptian coup, the military-backed government began requiring pre-approved visas and security clearances for all Syrians seeking entry, and turned planes around, sending refugees not only back to Syria’s neighbors and in some cases back to Syria itself.
Now many Syrian refugees in Egypt fear a dual threat: an increasingly violent anti-Syrian atmosphere spurred on by the media—in addition to facing xenophobic violence and arrest, Syrians say they have been insulted in the streets and face regular discrimination—and the ever-present threat of arbitrary arrest and deportation. UNHCR reports that 280 Syrians have been arrested in Egypt since early July, but other reports indicate that more than 500 have been arrested in Cairo and Alexandria, with likely hundreds more going unreported outside the two major cities. At least 58 Syrians have been deported, and some of these have faced a refugee’s worst fear—deportation to the country from which they fled.
As a result of increased harassment and restriction of rights, many Syrians feel compelled to move on in search of protection elsewhere. Those who can afford it have flown to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey—nations already straining to absorb the flow of refugees coming across the border directly from Syria. Cairo airport officials report that Syrians are leaving at a rate of about 100 per day since early July. Many of those who can’t afford the flight have opted for the dangerous and illegal journey by boat to Italy. The UNHCR reported that 3,300 Syrians have arrived in Italy by boat over the past 40 days, with the majority coming from Egypt, and reports of deaths during the crossing are common.
On Wednesday, UNHCR announced that the Egyptian Ministry of Education has confirmed it will allow Syrian children the same access to education as Egyptian children. While this is one positive step, Egypt needs to take many more. The United States can help protect Syrian refugees in Egypt by urging the Egyptian government to:
- Allow Syrians seeking international protection to enter the country.
- Cease police harassment, detention and deportation of Syrian refugees.
- Publicly challenge the current rhetoric blaming Syrian refugees for Egypt’s social challenges and political divisions.
- Investigate xenophobic attacks on Syrian refugees and hold perpetrators accountable.