In Egypt, softly-softly approach helps integrate Syrian refugees

Syrian Mohamed Amin who fled his country with his family due to the war, in his apartment Cairo. (File Photo: AFP)
Updated 11 July 2018
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In Egypt, softly-softly approach helps integrate Syrian refugees

  • Preference for integration rather than isolation in camps
  • But challenges include getting paper work and access to education

CAIRO: Cairo’s recent rejection of a European proposal for Egypt to set up refugee processing camps has highlighted the country’s quiet role in housing people fleeing the region’s war zones. 

The plight of hundreds of thousands of Syrians taking refuge in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan has been well documented, as have the economic and social strains the crisis has brought to bear on those countries’ services and infrastructure. 

Egypt, however, is also home to more than 228,000 registered refugees from 58 different countries, the majority of them from Syria.

Parliament speaker, Ali Abdel Aal, said last week that the EU’s proposal would “violate the laws and constitution of our country.”

The plan would have created “disembarkation platforms” in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Niger, Libya and Egypt, considered to be the main transit countries in North Africa. 

Source: UNHCR

The camps would be used as processing centers for the resettlement of refugees fleeing Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

An EU Council meeting last month concluded that the disembarkation platforms could prevent the loss of life by eliminating any incentive to embark on the dangerous journey and putting an end to the smuggling of refugees into Europe. 

During a recent trip to Germany, Abdel Aal told Welt am Sonntag newspaper that Egyptian law does not allow for the establishment of refugee camps and that legally registered refugees should be free to choose where to live. 

He said that already Egypt had hosted 10 million refugees “from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, Sudan, Somalia and other countries.”

Historically Egypt has had a strong stance on refugee camps, favoring instead to integrate refugees rather than forcefully isolate them. The Egyptian government made a similar rejection last December, after a meeting between Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship.

 

According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, “the model that Egypt represents with regards to social inclusiveness has proved to be successful and fosters the co-existence and social cohesion between Egyptians and refugees,” with refugees living among Egyptian communities in major cities across the country.

All registered refugees in Egypt have access to the country’s public health care system, while those coming from Syria and Sudan also have access to public education. 

Refugees also receive support from organizations such as UNHCR in the form of monthly cash grants, education grants, medical care and community-based social programs. 

But despite efforts to support refugee communities in Egypt, they still face difficult socio-economic conditions and widespread discrimination. 

“Egyptian public schools are already overwhelmed with a large number of students, which makes it more unlikely for Syrian children to get admitted, and even if they are, there is usually some kind of ill-treatment,” said a caseworker at Caritas Egypt, a local humanitarian NGO known for its work with refugees. “But, of course, there are schools that don’t discriminate and take in Syrian students regularly.”

Obtaining work permits and residency papers is another major obstacle that refugees face. 

“Syrians have it slightly easier than Africans,” said the caseworker. “But they all suffer from the same issues as we do when it comes to bureaucratic procedures.” 

According to the UNHCR, tough visa requirements, short-term residency permits and lengthy renewal procedures make the process of living and working in the country difficult. 

Saida, a 37-year old woman from Syria, sits on the side of the road in one of Egypt’s wealthier neighborhoods selling plates of baked goods, a Syrian specialty. She said that it takes so much time to obtain the correct papers that she, along with many others, have chosen instead to work illegally. 

“A few of the men and women in my family have been able to get a work permit, but it took them several tries and this is time and money we cannot afford to lose,” Saida said. “I have a family to feed, I cannot spend my days trying to get the right papers.”

In addition to already existing obstacles, the Egyptian parliament recently approved a draft law to increase the fees for obtaining citizenship from 50 Egyptian pounds to 10,000 Egyptian pounds (from $3 to $560), making it unaffordable for many. 

Yehia Kedwani, deputy of the national defense and security committee of Egypt’s parliament, told the online newspaper Egypt Independent that this was not intended to impose any kind of restrictions, but was “meant to increase the financial resources of the country.” 

Egypt’s high inflation rates have further added to refugees’ struggle. A 2016 UNHCR vulnerability assessment report, describes the tougher challenges faced by Syrian refugees since the onset of the war in Syria, with significantly higher household expenses and few options for securing a steady income. 

Many Egyptians, also struggling to make ends meet, feel that Egypt’s large refugee population is simply adding to its problems. 

Ahmed, a 53-year-old shop owner in Cairo, said: “They get so much money from the government when we have no money to give. How can we take care of so many people if the government can’t even take care of us?” 

However, a recent United Nations Development Program report concluded: “Syrian businesses have contributed significantly to Egypt’s economy and employment for both Egyptians and Syrians,” contributing an estimated $800 million to the local economy.

FASTFACTS

Business boost

Syrian businesses contribute an estimated $800 million to the local economy


Muslims pray in banned area of Al-Aqsa for first time since 2003

The worshippers forced their way into the area ahead of Friday prayer. (Reuters)
Updated 23 February 2019
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Muslims pray in banned area of Al-Aqsa for first time since 2003

  • The worshippers chanted religious and national slogans and mounted the flag of Palestine to show their delight at the reopening of the area

AMMAN: For the first time since 2003, Muslim worshippers broke an Israeli ban and offered Friday prayers in the Bab Al-Rahmeh prayer hall, which is part of the Haram Al-Sharif/Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Hundreds of Palestinian worshippers entered the Bab Al-Rahmeh area inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday for the first time since the area was closed to Muslim worship by Israeli authorities.

The worshippers, led by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein and other religious leaders, forced their way into the area ahead of the weekly Friday prayer, defying the Israeli ban.

The worshippers chanted religious and national slogans and mounted the flag of Palestine to show their delight at the reopening of the area, which has only been open during the past 16 years to Jewish fanatics during provocative visits to the Muslim holy place, the third holiest site in Islam, according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.

Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, the former mufti and now a member of the newly constituted Islamic Waqf Council in Jerusalem, delivered a short sermon in which he reiterated that “the Haram Al-Sharif is all 144 dunums of land, including the mosques, prayer halls, courtyard musuems and schools within it.” Sabri said that Muslims will not allow anyone to diminish Muslim rights in the entire mosque area.

The Friday prayer at Bab Al-Rahmeh went off peacefully in part because of an Israeli decision late on Thursday not to make any further escalations, a reliable source in Jerusalem told Arab News.

Khaleel Assali, a member of the new council who participated in the prayer at Bab Al-Rahmeh, told Arab News that the mood was peaceful and upbeat. “It was a beautiful thing to be able to reclaim part of our religious site that we were barred from using for so many years.”

The deputy head of the PLO’s Fatah movement, Mahmoud Alloul, praised the unprecedented action by the popular movement in Jerusalem. 

In a statement published on the Wafa website, Alloul called on Palestinians to stay steadfast in the courtyards of Al-Aqsa and Bab Al-Rahmeh and to “continue to stand up to the occupiers and their repeated incursions in Al-Aqsa courtyards.”

Mohammad Ishtieh, a senior Fatah leader who is expected to be the next Palestinian prime minister, issued a statement saying that what happened in Jerusalem today proves beyond a shadow of doubt that all actions and decisions aimed at Judaization of Jerusalem have failed as a result of the steadfastness of our people in our eternal capital. Ishtieh praised the defenders of Jerusalem who screamed for justice and who again forced the Israeli occupiers to back down.

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) and a new member of the Jordanian-appointed Waqf Council, told Arab News that all parties participated and share this success. “Everyone participated and every party should get credit for this success. Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa unite us.”

The popular protests that led to the breakup of the 16-year-old Israeli ban began on Feb. 13 when the newly constituted empowered and expanded 18-member Waqf Council decided to hold a symbolic prayer at the barred Bab Al-Rahmeh site. The Israelis responded by placing heavy chains at the gate and making arrests. 

After four days of arrests, Israel allowed the removal of the chains but would not go as far as allowing Muslim worshippers to enter. On Wednesday the Waqf Council called on worshippers to pray at the Bab Al-Rahmeh site. All five daily prayers were held outside the barred prayer hall. A confrontation was expected Friday, but the insistence of the worshippers on reclaiming their site led to the Israelis backing down, Jerusalem sources told Arab News.