Looking at the situation in Syria, where millions were forced to leave their homes and seek shelter in neighboring countries, refugees have fled their country due to well-founded fear. Syria’s political, religious, ethnic, or gender-based persecutions are collective reasons for citizens to pack their luggage and depart.
After heading to another country, refugees face various obstacles that could materialise in legal barriers, or economic issues. Besides, it is difficult to find a job in a new country. Refugees are usually challenged by socio-cultural factors such as difference in language, cultural habits, etc.
Once called a revolution, now the most commonly used words for what’s happening in Syria are civil war. Syrians have been fleeing the violence to neighbouring countries. And while some countries set up refugee camps such as Jordan and Turkey, Syrian refugees in Egypt are more loosely located in urban areas or are sometimes relocated in rural settings. In addition to the Syrian refugees, Egypt is host to a large number of Sudanese, Ethiopian, Somali, Eritrean refugees in addition to a considerable population of Palestinians and Iraqis.
The response to Syrian refugee presence has shown as much Egyptian chivalry towards Syrians as well as deeply-held racism against migrants from African origins. A clear example would be the unequal civil society response to different refugee communities. Numerous civil society groups have stepped in to assist Syrians whether with medical, food, and shelter services. These range from nation-wide entities such as the Doctors’ Syndicate to small charity groups and mosques.
In contrast, refugees of African origins are assisted by a limited number of aid groups, mostly targeting refugees only. While most of those groups assist Syrians as well, African refugees find it extremely difficult to access services outside those aid groups.
This glaring disparity in civil response obviously impacts the integration of different refugee communities into Egyptian society as a whole. While this closed aid system of African refugees limits their integration, Syrians find it relatively easy to access various service providers alongside other Egyptians, facilitating their integration into the community. This is also manifested by the heavy presence of African refugees in Cairo (where they can access services), while Syrians are spread across different governorates and regions of Egypt because they know they may be able to get decent support elsewhere.
Moreover, the reports of daily life from African refugees reveal a sad reality. African refugees report racist slurs and comments on Egyptian street every day. This comes in addition to persistent police harassment and abuse. While one cannot claim that life has been easy for Syrians here, their situation is significantly different.
I recall the brutal massacre of Sudanese refugees in Mostafa Mahmoud square in 2005 when security forces violently interfered to dismantle their protests in front of the UN Refugee Agency Office, resulting in the deaths of dozens of protesters including women, children, and elderly people.
What African migrants go through on a daily basis is not limited to them. It is also an ordinary occurrence for Egyptian Nubians. Their dark skin is easily seen as a basis to immediately perceive them as non-Egyptians, as many report that people usually assume they’re Sudanese or African-Americans. While race is hardly an obvious factor in Egyptian politics, it’s not unnatural to ascribe Nubian marginalisation to their ethnic background. Even when some Nubians call for their ‘right to return’ as a necessary compensation to their forced displacement from Old Nubia, they’re seen as instigators or separationists.
Women refugees from African origins, typically, find it more difficult as the sexual harassment becomes combined with racism. Since a large number of African refugee women work as domestic workers, they face the long litany of exploitation domestic workers usually face, whether sexual or otherwise.
There have been increasing reports of the exploitation of Syrian women, who have been married off without their consent in order to get their families supported by the husband. What happens to either Syrian or African women is a gross abuse and violation, and highlights the different ways Egyptian male perpetrators view those women. Some can only amount to inferior domestic workers, but the Syrians can be marriage material!
It’s important to note that the issue definitely runs deeper than this. The historic relationship with Syria makes us see Syrians in a special light. Egyptian media outlets heavily cover events in Syria while we hardly ever get news of what’s happening in Ethiopia or what’s going on in South Sudan. The government speeches show a lot of sympathy and solidarity with the suffering of the Syrian people, which comes at odds with African relations.
During Gamal Abdel Nasser’s time in power, Egypt maintained strong ties with African nations united by the shared struggle for sovereignty and against colonialism. The relations afterwards turned stale, especially under Mubarak who showed little interest in strengthening ties with Southern neighbors. Following his assassination attempt in Addis Ababa in 1995 while attending the Organisation for African Unity Summit, the rift grew wider and Mubarak was never to attend another African summit. Disagreements about Nile water sharing with Nile Basin countries were another driving factor for the tension.
Comparisons are unfair and suffering is never to be quantified or measured. However, this is not the intention of this piece; it’s about exposing Egyptian’s racist attitudes to Africans, which seems to be an oxymoron since Egyptians are African themselves.
In any case, our society continues to be in deep denial about this problem, hindering any action to be taken in that regard. We have seen progress on some issues. They have moved from the denial phase into the how-to-deal-with-it phase in the problem of sexual harassment. Whether we will see the same progress with racism and ethnic discrimination is yet to be seen.
Ahmed Awadalla is a blogger and a member of several civil society initiatives focusing on health and gender in Egypt. He is currently working for a refugee assistance organisation based in Cairo.