Dire situation for refugees in Egypt

Sarah El-Sheikh
11 Min Read
Syrian children while receiving their certificates last year in Tadamon Center Tadamon Center

The detention and deportation of Arab refuges residing in Egypt increased over 2015, raising several questions about their livelihood and residency condition in the country. Many face difficulty in navigating residency procedures, unemployment, low salaries, discrimination, and extortion.


According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are around 127,000 Syrian refugees living in Egypt that are registered with UNHCR in addition to over 50,000 African and Iraqi refugees.

Outreach officer at Tadamon Organisation for Supporting Syrians in Egypt Sohiab Al-Aswad told Daily News Egypt that more than 10,000 Syrian have left Egypt in 2015 and immigrated to Turkey either to stay there or to return to Syria.

He said many Syrians have been arrested since the ouster of the former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, as residency procedures became more stringent. Additionally refugees were met with intransigence and constant delay from the foreign ministry office.

”Being unable to have your parents beside you due to a difficulty in obtaining residency permits makes life unbearable in Egypt. My sister [who is in Syria] was accepted into Faculty of Law in al-Mansoura University; she couldn’t enter Egypt, and the reason was because ‘Syrians are not currently allowed in the country’,” Al-Aswad said.

He further noted that the Egyptian police actively inspect various districts where Syrians are present in Egypt, arresting people without residency cards. Increasingly, people stay in their homes for fear of being arrested.

A lawyer who specialises in Syrian refugees issues, Youssef El-Metany, told Daily News Egypt that Syrians are not only unable to enter Egypt, but they also face difficulty in obtaining the necessary approval from security personal to establish their own businesses. This shortfall in income only accentuates the plight of refuges

Daily News Egypt spoke also to two officers working in the Fard and Insan oraginstaion along with Al-Aswad, all of who confirmed that UNHCR faces economic problems that have decreased its ability to provide assistance to Syrian refugees living in Egypt during 2015.

Sohiab said Tadmon gradually stopped all activities they offer for Syrians in 2015 as they no longer have the financial capacity to buy equipment. Tadamon currently depends on individual contributions to address refugees’ basic needs ranging from commodities and food to clothing and educational and health services. But due to the lack of funding, the organisation has been experiencing difficulties in paying rent for their office. Even worse, the organisation is suffering from a shortage of school equipment, and thus stated start the new academic year late.

Fard and Insan officers also reported that their educational programme did not begin contemporaneously with the Egyptian school year due to deterioration in their financial solvency. The Fard and Insan organisation has increased its efforts to collect donations to provide refugees with school equipment and to pay the salaries of teachers.

Iraqi nationals residing in Egypt are subject to different UNHCR procedures than govern refugees in other countries as they do not receive food or education assistance,  according to the Centre of Migration and Refugees Studies (CMRS).

CMRS noted that Iraqis are not able to create their own community in Egypt like other refugees or foreigners.

In the past years many Iraqis left Egypt due the lack of services and for not being able to find employed commensurate to their educational degrees due to a labour law that barred Arab nationals from employment at  Egyptian companies.

Iraqi refugees in Egypt see Europe as a more viable alternative to their situation in Egypt, pushing many to consider dangerous migration methods, according to interviews and surveys conducted by the CMRS.

CMRS highlighted the case of an Iraqi woman who was arrested at Cairo’s airport, attempt to board a flight to Sweden with a forged passport.

‘’Egypt is like a prison because you cannot return and there are no visas to other countries so smuggling is the only option”, the woman told CMRS.

Daily News Egypt spoke to several Iraqi nationals regarding their residency and living conditions in Egypt.

Yasmin Ahmed, an Iraqi woman studying at Cairo University, spoke about the difficulties she faces in trying to find insurance coverage, as the state has adopted policies to preclude non-Egyptian nationals from its public insurance police.

“it’s written in my residency card that I’m not allowed to work in Egyptian business that offer insurance services for their employees, while I am supposed to pay $1000 for the university fees, so how can I afford my studies and life expenses when I’m not allowed to work to improve my income”, Ahmed told Daily News Egypt.

An Iraqi national studying computer science in Egypt, Mokdam Habib, agreed with Ahmed’s sentiment regarding the barriers Iraqis face in finding employment in Egypt. The government has raised the threshold for gainful employment while also not providing any services to those in financial need.

Another student, Ali Al-Obeidi, has not been able to receive residency despite being a student in a private university which would normally facilitate the residency procedure for non-Egyptian nationals.

An Iraqi national working in Egypt, Bahar Al-Asamarri, complained about the common conception that Iraqis in Egypt are wealth, which he asserts neglects that the majority left Iraq due to economic and political problems.

Al-Asamarri narrated that several times police officers have asked him for bribes. “The first time I came to Egypt, a high-ranking police officer in the airport told me in a direct way that he wants money, and I remember also another time when I was in the Foreign Ministry office finishing some papers–there was two lines. In the first line, there were people who could not pay to expedite the process but in the second line briberies were accelerating the situation.”

Sudanese refugees in an event organised by Resala organisation (Photo from Resala)
Sudanese refugees in an event organised by Resala organisation
(Photo from Resala)

Despite the special case of Palestinian refugees and widespread support of the Palestinian cause, Egypt has shown little lenience to their plight, as there are residency regulations that they must adhere to or face imprisonment or deportation. The regulations mandate that Palestinians must  renew their residency annually, paying a fee despite their precarious economic circumstances.

Palestinians in Egypt have mainly complained a lack of appropriate health services and the requirement to seek approval for every administrative action they need to take, according to interviews conducted by CMRS.

The Sudanese living in Egypt occupy the worst position among refuges residing in Egypt, as they do not only face residential and economic barriers but also suffer from discrimination.

One of the most prominent cases took place in November 2015 when the Egyptian police arrested and tortured a Sudanese national who came to Egypt to provide his son with medical treatment. Photos of the victim’s torture wounds were widely disseminated on social media platforms.

Daily News Egypt spoke with a Sudanese national who is a mayor of a neighbourhood in Ain Shams district and goes by the name Nasr to protect his anonymity. Nasr complained about the neighbourhood’s high rents saying that it has forced unsafe cohabitation. According to Nasr, there are 15 people living in one lodgement’s that consist of three rooms in order to pay for the high rent.


Al-Aswad stated that Syrians also suffer the same problem.


Nasr explained that the majority of Sudanese nationals living in Egypt receive low salaries and report a high frequency of abuse. “Dozens of Sudanese are assaulted and arrested for not having residency permissions. Not only this, discrimination is really disturbing our life in Egypt, as we are mistreated from both Egyptian people and police officers, Nasr said.


Sudanese women work as domestic workers and nannies, while men work in factories and shops or as drivers or office attendants. These professions are all paid low salaries.


According to the El Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, African nationals come to Egypt as a transitional area until they find ways to reach their target destinations, whether in Europe or Israel. It also confirmed that policemen often verbally assault and physically abuse Africans refugees of both genders.


Refugees in Syria, Sudan, Iraq, and Palestine have all fled national contexts that feature military and political strife and have come to Egypt due to geographical and historical ties to the country. However, they have faced constant problems.


Human rights lawyer at the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), Malek Adly, commented to Daily News Egypt on the state of labour practices that refugees faces and the variance according to specialisation and nationality. Palestinians, unlike any other refugee group, are allowed to be gainfully employed by an Egyptian company. Syrians were allowed to work under the government of former president Mohamed Morsi. Sudanese lawyers are allowed to register with the Lawyers’ Syndicate.
Adly suggested that the Egyptian government provides more lenient work clearance to countries that provide remittances to Egypt. Adly emphasised that Arab nationals must be treated as equal to Egyptians workers.

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