No haven for Syrian refugees in Egypt

In the nearly three months since Nadia Hammadeh fled war-torn Damascus to Cairo, her children were refused enrollment in a public school, her husband was arrested from their home by police questioning his residency permit, and his tuk tuk was taken away because Egyptian colleagues were angry that a Syrian was being employed.


“Weren’t Syrians also created by God?” says Hammadeh, as she crouches against a bare white wall in her sparsely furnished apartment, located in a low income housing project on the outskirts of Cairo.


Hammadeh is one of many Syrian refugees who complain of poor treatment, since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, and his replacement with a military-backed government. Previously, Syrian refugees got visas upon arrival, were able to move the streets freely, had equal access to education and healthcare, were able to open up businesses and received support by Islamic charities; now, they are caught in Egypt’s political tensions, becoming one of the casualties.


Since July 8, when Egypt imposed the requirement that Syrians obtain a visa before entry, those actually allowed in has been “negligible”, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cairo. Planes full of Syrians have been turned back, because they lacked the paperwork. 


“Egyptian authorities said this would be a temporary measure until security conditions improve,” says Mohamed Dayri, the UNHCR’s regional representative, at an interview in his Cairo office. “We are yet to see a lifting of this decision.”


Between July and September, 143 registered and unregistered Syrians were arrested, of whom 58 were deported, including children. Thirty-two were released and 53 remain in detention, according to UNHCR figures. An additional 75 Palestinian Syrians have been arrested, all of whom were deported.


“On what grounds Syrians are deported, we don’t know. These are administrative decisions by the Interior Ministry taken without any due legal process,” Dayri says.


Those who are deported choose their destination and are forced to buy their own airline tickets.


“This is not classified as deportation, but voluntary departure,” says Priyanka Motaparthy, a researcher in the child rights division at Human Rights Watch in Cairo.


If a minor is arrested, they are often separated from their families, deported and sent to foster homes in other countries, Dayri says.


These difficulties have unfolded alongside a public campaign waged by pro-military establishments fueling anti-Syrian sentiment among Egyptians as part of the efforts to marginalize the Muslim Brotherhood by associating the group with Syrians and Palestinians. When a Syrian national was arrested at a pro-Morsi demonstration in Cairo on July 5, reported by privately-owned newspaper Al-Youm Al-Sabea, “it corroborated in the eyes of Egyptians what they had thought: that Syrians were part of a political agenda in Egypt,” Dayri says.


The next day, popular television talk-show host Tawfik Okasha called on Egyptians to arrest any Syrians they found in the streets. On July 10, television presenters on local channels accused Syrians of siding with Morsi supporters. Okasha gave Syrians a 48-hour warning to stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, otherwise Egyptians would destroy their homes.


Morsi, a Sunni Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood, firmly allied himself with rebel forces fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who is from the minority Shia Alawite sect.


At a June 15 rally in Cairo, Morsi announced the end of diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime and the closing of the Syrian Embassy. Sunni Islamist preachers at the packed televised rally called for a holy war in Syria.


Since Morsi’s ouster, thousands of his supporters have either been killed or arrested by the state in a “war on terror.” Officials have defended their actions as necessary to boost security as the government pushes on with a transitional road map that would see the suspended constitution amended and elections held by early next year. 


Samer, a 53-year-old father of two from the Syrian city of Homs, is slumped over a chair in the courtyard of a church that the UNHCR has rented out as office space for registering refugees in Cairo. He is waiting for his brother to receive a yellow card, the UNCHR registration document that entitles a refugee to protection and a monthly stipend.


Arriving three months ago, Samer has experienced the rise of anti-Syrian sentiment. He says he cannot find work, and is worried that his children might miss a school year, if they cannot attend a public school. Private schools are too expensive.


Syrians are still entitled to equal access to education, according to Dayri, though the message has not translated to bureaucrats on the ground. Many are still unable to register their children in public schools.


Asked whether Syrians are participating in anti-government demonstrations, Samer says: “If they catch a Syrian in a protest, he’s either being paid, and doesn’t have a family to worry about, or is working for intelligence.” 


“Most people have escaped bombing and shelling in Syria for peace and quiet. It’s a shame to oppress all Syrians, because of the alleged actions of a few,” he says.


Besides being caught up in a political context with arrests and entry visas, there is also the economic hardship. Most of the 240 Syrians that closed their files with the UNHCR in the first five days of September cited economic reasons. The majority intended to leave for Turkey where they believe they will be more welcome. Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government had strong ties with Morsi.


Many Syrians are also risking their lives to depart in small boats off the shores of Alexandria to Europe, Italy in particular, where the distant hope of a better life awaits.


Over the past 40 days, 3,300 Syrians, including over 230 unaccompanied children, arrived on the shores of Italy, mainly in Sicily, the UNHCR said in a statement on September 13. The majority came from Egypt.


Charities in Egypt are also struggling as the donations they previously received have dried up. Abu Zakaria Abul Khair says that while his Association for Syrian Refugees if he used to get LE70,000 in donations a month under Morsi, now the association receives only LE20,000.


“The Egyptian people accuse us of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood,” he says by phone. “We are not.”


His network provides 170 families with LE500 per month as a stipend, 600 families with food bags and 27,000 families with medical services, Abul Khair says.


But the hardships Syrians face in Egypt fall into a larger context of an unfavorable environment for refugees in general. Syrians, who now make up the largest population of refugees in Egypt numbering at least 117,000, are but the latest victims of an atmosphere that is generally hostile towards refugees.


In 2011, in the first year of the uprising against the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian Foundation for Refugee Rights recorded its busiest year, according to its vice chairperson Martin Jones. The number of refugees complaining of arbitrary arrest and detention, and acts of violence and discrimination increased by over 20 percent, he says.


Other refugee communities in Egypt include Sudanese, Somalis, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Iraqis and Palestinians.


“Whenever there is political conflict on a government level, refugee communities pay the price at a community level,” says H.I, a human rights activist working with refugees in Cairo.


In early June, during Egypt’s fallout with Ethiopia over the Grand Renaissance Dam project, the UNHCR issued a press statement pleading with Egyptians to respect Ethiopian refugees. This came after more than 40 complaints were recorded by Ethiopian refugees fired from their jobs or forced to leave their homes.


Refugee women also pay the price. Gang rape in Cairo happens on a “frequent” basis, according to H.I. In the three months of April, May and June, H.I.’s organization recorded 11 cases of refugee women subjected to sexual and gender based violence, mainly rape. 


In 2005, 23 Sudanese died when riot police moved to clear a sit-in of refugees protesting outside the offices of the UNHCR.


And in the midst of these difficulties reflecting lack of hospitality toward newly settled communities in Egypt, many members of these communities strive for the day when they can go back home. For them, Egypt is a temporary setting.


In a café and shopping district that has come to be known as Little Damascus on the outskirts of Cairo, Mohamed, a 22-year-old working in a clothes and shoes store, is one among many Syrians who haven’t registered with the UNHCR. Government officials estimate the real figure of Syrians in Egypt at between 250,000 and 300,000.


“I’m afraid that if I register, I won’t be able to go home,” says Mohamed, who was briefly arrested in late July on his way to work.


Registered Syrians are advised not to leave the country, because their re-entry to Egypt cannot be guaranteed.


“I will always want to return to Syria,” he says.

Nadine Marroushi 

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