In the wake of the Syrian civil war that broke out in 2011 against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, thousands of refugees from the worn-torn country have flocked to Egypt.
More than 80,000 have died in Syria as a result of the on-going civil war, leaving more than one million Syrians externally displaced according to the United Nations. Those fleeing the violence in Syria have found themselves seeking refuge in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Egypt.
As of March 2013 Egypt accommodates 140,000 Syrian refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with only 47,927 actually registered.
According to the UNHCR report, most of the refugees reside in Greater Cairo, specifically in 6th of October City.
Some Syrian refugees are also residing in the outskirts of Giza, in cities like Obour, Nasr, and Rehab. Others are scattered around several governorates, including Alexandria, Luxor, Beni Suef, Sohag and Minya.
“In November 2012, UNHCR worked with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to conduct a survey to determine how many Syrians are employed, but unfortunately the results were not very encouraging,” said Ahmed Abu Ghazala, public information officer at UNHCR.
Abu Ghazala said UNHCR is currently trying to plan and implement projects in order to help the Syrian refugees in Egypt in this regard.
No Work, High Rental Fees
Two major problems face Syrian families once they step onto Egyptian soil: scarce housing and unemployment. “I came just one month ago after our revolution began, we didn’t have any other choice,” said Om Basheer, a Syrian refugee who prepares and delivers Syrian food.
Om Basheer is a newly married, young Syrian woman from the Syrian capital Damascus. She lives with her husband, who is unemployed, and children in a small rented house in 6th of October City.
In Syria, Om Basheer was a science teacher, but she wasn’t able to find a teaching job in Egypt. So instead, she decided to launch a small project which has become her family’s only means to .
“I was earning about EGP 6,000 monthly from my work in Syria, I had a car, a big house, was living a good life, but now everything is gone,” said Om Basheer.
“I will make pure Syrian food like Qeba. My project is going to target middle class Syrian refuges in Egypt.”
While she also had a Saudi Arabian visa, Om Basheer said Egypt is the most comfortable place for her and her family. “The most valuable thing close to a human being’s heart is having their own home and now my home is gone, I hope if I go back Syria I can find it,” said Om basher.
Exhibitions of Syrian-made products
Mohamed Saeed is a Syrian refugee in his thirties who sells Syrian-made products like clothes, food, textiles in Giza neighbourhood. “I came directly after the Syrian revolution,” he said.
Saeed rents a shop in Nasr City where runs a wholesale business selling Syrian-made at local arts, crafts, and handmade items exhibitions. He said he can barely afford the monthly rent of his shop which is roughly EGP 6,000.
“Joining an exhibition is not that difficult; we talk to the owner of the exhibition and ask him about renting a small space to sell my products. I pay EGP 1,000 per metre,” said Saeed.
“Profits from exhibitions are not much; they barely cover our rental expenditures,” he said. “These exhibitions can last for two weeks, one month or even one year.”
Saeed said his products are completely made in Syria by a company called “G2”. While his products are imported, there are a number of factories employing Syrians in 6th of October and 10th of Ramadan cities which also produce similar products.
“I was working in Syria, living a good life with my family, but now we’re separated and I’m worried about them,” said Saeed.
“I’m happy here, but Egypt is like any other country with both good and bad aspects. A specific problem has been Egypt’s economic situation; less people come to buy Syrian-made products from these exhibitions,” Saeed said.
Saeed, Om Basheer, Nour and several other Syrian refugees emphasised that neither Egypt authorities nor Syrian embassy in Cairo support them.
“No one help us, but I don’t need any help from anyone anyway. I took the risk to start my own new business. I trust god and I will do it, I will succeed,” said Om Basheer.
“Syrian investments vary between cafes, restaurants and joining selling Syrian-made crafts and products,” said Essam El-Qorashy, deputy head of the Treasury for Social Development.
“I don’t think the Egyptian government has a role to support Syrian small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in Egypt,” said El-Qorashy.
El-Qorashy said that Syrian exhibitions in Egypt are a great way to start a small business. These exhibitions are established through the Expo and Convention Authority. The authority contracts with a Syrian or Egyptian company with products or services to sell, and an exhibition organising company is the middleman between both.
According to legislation, non-Egyptians cannot completely own a small business in Egypt, though they can own a portion of a business. El-Qorashy said that Egypt is too busy with its own problems consider starting a dialogue about this problem.
“We have strong strategic bilateral relations between Egypt and Syria,” he said. “We usually encourage foreign businessmen to pump new investments into the Egyptian market, but we have a lot of problems to address in addition encouraging Syrian investment; we are spread very thin.”
On 8 May, UNHCR threw a fundraising concert to support Syrian refugees in Egypt. The concert was organised with support from the British embassy in Egypt and the Arab League.
“Before the crisis, Syrians entered Egypt without a visa, and this has continued. President Morsi decreed in September 2012 that Syrians could access public schools and health facilities. They are also offered regular three-month extensions for their residential visas,” said Mohamed Dayri, UNHCR regional representative.
“For all those reasons, we have to sincerely and warmly show our appreciation to the Egyptian people for their support through the concert,” said Dyari.
While some provisions are being extended to the growing Syrian population in Egypt, aid is particularly few and far between for the Palestinians that were already refugees in Syria before the civil strife.
Palestinians; the forgotten people
The United Nations as an international body exerts various efforts as mentioned earlier to accommodate for refugees, despite the frequent shortcomings of donor nations in providing the needed financial support to accommodate the needs of UN missions. One group that has been all but neglected in Egypt, however, are Palestinians who fled to Syria during the 1948 and the subsequent 1967 war with Israel.
For many Palestinians, 15 March marks the day in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became displaced and stateless. Those fleeing from the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict turned to neighbouring Arab states such as Jordan, Egypt and Syria for refuge.
Palestinians were given a safe haven of sorts in the Arab world, quickly recognised as refugees by the UN and Arab states, who also recognise their “right of return”. This right of return meant Palestinian refugees and their descendants had the right to return to what is known as modern day Israel, a claim which the state of Israel rejects entirely.
“Some scholars and politicians, especially in Israel, have maintained that the Palestinian refugee issue would gradually be eliminated, if it had not already been resolved, in Arab host countries,” Palestinian historian and former diplomat Abbas Shiblak said in an article published in the Journal of Palestinian Studies in 1996. He argued there were two main assumptions surrounding this belief.
First, there was an assumption that “Palestinian refugees would melt readily into the surrounding Arab societies by virtue of their shared language, history, culture, and, for the most part, religion”, Shiblak explained. The second assumption is that the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) would be able to integrate the refugees into neighbouring countries through economic assistance to provide a long-term and durable solution “even if political integration into the country of asylum cannot be achieved”.
Shiblak argued the past five decades have proven these assumptions wrong. “The Palestinian refugees have increased in number and seem to have become even more alienated and marginalised than before.”
The UNRWA was established shortly after the 1948 war, known to Palestinians as the Nakba, to deal specifically with the diaspora. Over one million Palestinians were displaced as a result of the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel and an estimated five million people form the total number of Palestinian refugees and their descendants today. Of these, UNRWA estimates 485,000 lived in Syria as of January 2012.
Since the outbreak of the war in Syria, these Palestinians once again fled to neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt seeking shelter alongside more than one million Syrians.
The UNRWA however cannot operate in Egypt as it does not classify Palestinians as refugees. As a result these Palestinians, some of which are facing their second exodus, are not entitled to any form of refugee assistance from the government or the UN.
Another consequence of the government stance is that there are no official statistics regarding the number of Palestinian-Syrians that are currently in Egypt.
The Palestinian embassy, serving the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank, has said an estimated 8,000-9,000 are believed to be in the country at the moment, although they say many have failed to register with the embassy. Palestinian activists such as Hanine Hassan, working with the refugees, estimate there are more than 12,000 and more arriving daily.
These refugees are not given access to the same aid being provided to their Syrian counterparts by the UNHCR, which includes education, healthcare, housing and financial support. Instead most are forced to rely on the dwindling stocks of money they had managed to bring with them; those fortunate enough say family members from other countries are sometimes able to send them small amounts irregularly.
Many refugees do not want to be named, often because they fear for the safety of family members that stayed behind but more often because they fear being targeted by Egyptian authorities.
Last month Palestinian-Syrians held a protest in front of the Palestinian embassy to demand recognition and aid. The protesters said they faced threats and discrimination from the embassy staff and the police who told them “thugs” from the neighbourhood might disrupt the protest if it continued overnight.
Threats and discrimination from Egyptian authorities are nothing new to these refugees. Upon their arrival the Palestinians are usually granted a visa which lasts for no more than one year, after which they are often told to return to where they came from.
With no assistance from the government or the UN, Palestinian-Syrians are forced to look for jobs without any legal guarantees of their rights. Working illegally, these refugees say they are often faced with extreme prejudice by the Egyptian community.
The UNHCR says it cannot help displaced Palestinians in Egypt because of the government’s stance. The same has been said by several NGOs working with African refugees.
Earlier in May, the Palestinian embassy said it was exerting all possible efforts to accommodate the refugees. A staff member at the embassy said they were in communication with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in an attempt to pressure the Egyptian government to change its stance. For now, however, Palestinian-Syrians remain in a perpetual state of statelessness.