Egypt Independant, 21 of June 2012
by Sara Sadek
Where are the refugees from Egypts revolution?
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
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
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 Egypts revolution.
Sara Sadek is a PhD Student at the University of York, UK and a consultant
on refugee issues.