For the past 10 years, 20 June has been marked to commemorate the World Refugee Day (WRD). Egypt has witnessed celebrations for WRD initiated by grassroots groups or agencies serving refugees. Such celebrations were often artistic in nature, attempting to bridge the gap between refugees and Egyptian nationals. Egypt is considered one of the major centers hosting urban refugees in the global south, including Sudanese, Southern Sudanese, Iraqi, Ethiopians, Eritrean and Palestinian refugees as well as other smaller East African groups. Yet despite the large number of refugees and their presence in the heart of Egypt's major cities, the local population remains largely unaware of the causes for their displacement or their living conditions. Several factors have contributed to the lack of interest in the refugee problem in Egypt.
According to a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Egyptian government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the responsibilities of Refugee Status Determination, protection and service provision have been delegated to the latter. As a signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, Egypt has made reservations on a few articles depriving refugees of accessing basic services. To date, Egypt has no local legislation governing refugee affairs, which has left refugees and asylum seekers vulnerable to arbitrary policies and practices. Such framework has made it difficult to pressure the government to take responsibility for refugees. Through UNHCR's partners, as well as other legal aid and relief organizations, refugees have been able to access basic services. Yet due to financial and administrative constraints faced by service providers, many refugees' demands remain unmet. For economic survival, refugees count on income-generating activities, or in most cases, on unskilled labor.
The fact that refugees are considered a “threat to national security” has been systematically used by authorities to justify their ill-treatment, which has accordingly affected the public's perception towards refugees. Through state media, the government has succeeded in portraying refugees as unwanted guests competing over resources and threatening national security. A good example was the media coverage of the three-month sit-in organized by Sudanese refugees in 2005 in front of UNHCR's previous premises, ending in what is often referred to as the "Mostafa Mahmoud Massacre." The sit-in, which lasted for three months without interference from authorities, was suddenly portrayed as causing disruption and health hazards in the area. Some media sources went as far as spreading the rumors that refugees were committing sexual activities during the sit-in. Thus when the sit-in was brutally dismantled, the Egyptian public remained unsympathetic. Similar strategies have been followed by the government to justify arbitrary arrests, detention and deportation. In theory, Egypt has committed to the principle of non-refoulement; yet the government continues to systematically deport Sub-Saharan refugee groups. Additionally, the government has continued to shoot refugees on the borders attempting to escape to Israel. After the revolution, the shooting practice has been extended to include refugees in Aswan attempting to flee Sudan and enter Egypt.
While the government bears a responsibility toward the lack of interest in refugee issues, NGOs are also to be blamed. Organizations catering to refugees have focused their efforts on legal aid and relief services. Initiatives to bridge the gap between the local population and refugees have remained very minimal. Additionally, many organizations have deliberately refrained from engaging in advocacy-related activities lest their operations be jeopardized. Refugees have been left to suffer daily xenophobic practices manifested in harassment. As Egypt is undergoing socio-political changes, refugees are at risk of further marginalization. One cannot simply claim that refugees have been particularly targeted after the revolution. Yet refugees remain more vulnerable than Egyptians. According to a Sudanese refugee leader, “Egyptians are protected after all. If they are exposed to thugs, they resort to friends and family. As a refugee, you had to have had very positive relations with Egyptians prior to these events to resort to them for protection, which is not always the case.”
Before the revolution, refugees were able, at least in theory, to file complaints against perpetrators, but these days they are turned away at police stations on the basis that their claims are related to a "refugee problem." Additionally, refugees have occasionally been subjected to arbitrary verbal attacks demanding that they "go home since Mubarak is gone." While no one could argue against the fact that refugee influxes reached its peak during Mubarak's regime due to the political unrest in various neighboring countries, refugees have lived a dark era under Mubarak. Thus it is very ironic to consider them beneficiaries of the previous regime.
In recent years, the situation of refugees in Egypt has been marked with uncertainty and vulnerability. The lack of a clear policy and practice toward refugees has led to diffused roles among agencies and service providers concerned with refugee affairs. Additionally the misconception among the public that refugees are burdens catered to by some organizations but still competing over resources, has increased intolerance toward them.
In post-revolution Egypt, refugee-related issues have remained absent in the agendas of the presidential candidates and the transitional governments. The perception that refugees will remain ignored due to the government's preoccupation with local issues is a concern among refugees and their advocates. It is not in the refugees' best interest to be singled out in terms of protection and social service needs. The challenges faced by refugees should not be looked at separately, but should be incorporated under the aspired-for human rights framework.
If the pillars of the Egyptian revolution revolve around equity, justice and freedom, then perceiving refugees as second-class citizens is a prejudice. Now is the best time for concerned actors to cooperate to advocate for the rights of refugees within the realm of the aspired-for respect for human rights following Egypt’s revolution.
Sara Sadek is a PhD Student at the University of York, UK and a consultant on refugee issues.