Syrian refugees in post-Morsi Egypt

Joel Gulhane
8 Min Read
A group of five NGOs and movements announced their condemnation for legal and humanitarian violations faced by Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Egypt. (AFP Photo)
Syrians are currently flooding out of their war torn country at a rate of 5,000 per day, said UNHCR (AFP Photo)
Syrians are currently flooding out of their war torn country at a rate of 5,000 per day, said UNHCR
(AFP Photo)

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has announced that the number of Syrian refugees has now surpassed 2 million, with Egypt currently hosting 111,101 ‘Persons of Concern’, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates the number to be 250,000-300,000.

Syrians are currently flooding out of their war torn country at a rate of 5,000 per day, said UNHCR. One year ago the number of Syrians registered as refugees or awaiting registration was 230,671.

There are currently 97,018 registered Syrian refugees living in Egypt, according to the latest figures from UNHCR that were released on Tuesday. There are a further 14,083 Syrians who have made appointments to register with the UN agency.

UNHCR’s funding requirements in Egypt are $66,705,984 and they have received 22% of this so far, still needing $51,838,986 to make ends meet.

UNHCR told Daily News Egypt that the overall funding requirements are progressing and money is coming in from international donors such as the United States, Europe, Japan, Kuwait and many others.

Speaking on the conditions of Syrian refugees in Egypt, UNHCR said that they have been affected by the turbulent political situation in their host country, with many being harassed and assaulted. This did cause an increase in the number of Syrians coming to UNHCR to officially register, but there has been a decrease in the number of Syrians coming to Egypt as a result with many opting to go to other Arab countries such as Lebanon and Jordan where there are no visa requirements.

Badr Abdelatty, official spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that the current visa requirements for Syrians coming to Egypt is only a temporary measure due to Egypt’s domestic security concerns. He said, “They are welcome in Egypt and services such as education and health care have been made available to them.”

Susan, a Syrian refugee originally from Damascus fled to Egypt in December 2012 with her husband and twin children. She says that the situation for Syrians in Egypt has changed a lot since Mohamed Morsi was ousted as president at the beginning of July. She decried the new visa requirements set out by the interim government saying, “we haven’t needed visas for 20 years, why is this happening now?” She claimed that she knows of Syrians who are attempting to obtain visas to come to Egypt but their applications are being refused. She added, “we are stuck here, if I want to visit another country for business or to see family I fear that I won’t be able to come back.”

Susan also said that under Morsi’s government Syrians were able to enrol their children in state run schools for free. She claims that this has now changed and that Syrians are told to go to private schools to educate their children. “Not many Syrians can afford to pay the school fees so many go to other countries where it is free and some even go back to Syria to educate their children.”

Abdelatty pointed out that Egypt and Syria used to be one nation during the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser as the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961. He continued, “the vast majority of Syrians live here like Egyptians, they are our brothers and sisters.”

Susan said that she still feels safe living in Egypt but since the issue of refugees has become intertwined with Egypt’s internal strife she is feeling less secure. “When I came to Egypt, I came for Egypt, not for Morsi or any other person. These are internal issues, why are they involving the Syrian refugees?” She believes the Egyptian media were in part responsible for the increased animosity towards Syrian refugees in Egypt. She said, “If there were Syrians in Rabaa [Al-Adaweya Square pro-Morsi sit-in] or if a Syrian broke the law then arrest them and deal with them, but do not punish all the Syrian refugees.”

Susan believes the attitudes of Egyptian people have changed towards Syrians and this is having an effect on the day-to-day lives of the refugee population. She said that some young men who want to travel in to central Cairo for work are afraid to go in case they are attacked or arrested.  She said that some Egyptians tell the refugees, “you are damaging our country.” She stressed that this is not true of all Egyptians but it happens nonetheless.

Mohamed Farouk, a lawyer from the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) said that after the ouster of Mohamed Morsi as President at the beginning of July the situation for Syrians in Egypt worsened.  Farouk said the Egyptian media began an “attack” on the Syrian community in Egypt. “The media claimed that Syrians were taking part in the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins,” said Farouk, adding that this made them a target for those who opposed the Brotherhood.  Shortly after his appointment Egypt’s interim Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Fahmy called on all refugees in Egypt not to involve themselves with Egyptian politics.

Farouk said Morsi made statements that all Syrians had the right to be in Egypt without needing a permit. Despite this never being made official, Syrians lived in Egypt without a visa but this changed after the visa requirements were announced. “The authorities would have Syrians brought to them and if they had a visa they let them go but if not they deported them,” said Farouk.

The turning point for Syrians, according to Farouk, came after the Egyptian authorities attempted to deport Syrian film maker Mohaned Al-Hariri, a situation that ANHRI worked to prevent. Farouk said, “after this things got better for Syrians in Egypt,” adding that the authorities are for the most part facilitating the process for Syrians attempting to normalise their visa status.

Ministers from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are set to meet with UNHCR on Wednesday to discuss ways to increase international support for the humanitarian effort providing for Syrian refugees. A spokesperson for UNHCR in Geneva confirmed that Egypt would not be represented at the meeting saying it was because only “immediate neighbours” of Syria were invited.

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Joel Gulhane is a journalist with an interest in Egyptian and regional politics. Follow him on Twitter @jgulhane