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


Syrian children study on the ground in abandoned villa

Displaced Syrian children attend class at a makeshift school in the village of Muhandiseen, in the south western countryside of the Aleppo province, on September 24, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 35 min 47 sec ago
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Syrian children study on the ground in abandoned villa

  • Some sit with their knees drawn on a plastic woven carpet, their shoes neatly by its side

ALEPPO, Syria: In rebel-held northern Syria, displaced children sit or lie on the ground of an unfinished villa, bending over their notebooks to apply themselves as they write the day’s lesson.
Four teachers instruct around 100 children — girls and boys aged six to 12 — at the makeshift school in an opposition-held area in the west of the northern province of Aleppo.
Between the bare walls of the villa abandoned mid-construction, children sit or lie on sheets or plain carpets, their small backpacks cast by their side.
Dubbed “Buds of Hope,” the teaching facility has no desks, library or even working toilets.
Instead, the air wafts in from beyond the pine trees outside through the gaping windows in the cement wall.
Dressed in a bright blue T-shirt and jeans, her hair neatly tied back in a pony tail, a barefoot girl kneels over her book, carefully writing.
“This isn’t a school,” says 11-year-old Ali Abdel Jawad.
“There aren’t any classrooms, no seats, nothing. We’re sitting on the ground,” he says.
In one classroom, a gaggle of veiled young girls sit on a bench, as the teacher explains the lesson to one of their male counterparts near a rare white board.
In another, the school’s only female teacher perches on a plastic chair, as her students gather around on the floor, their backs against the wall.

Some sit with their knees drawn on a plastic woven carpet, their shoes neatly by its side.
The children — as well as their teachers — have been displaced from their homes in other parts of Syria due to the seven-year war, a teacher told an AFP photographer.
Some hail from Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus, a former rebel stronghold that fell back under regime control in April after a blistering offensive and surrender deals.
Others come from the central provinces of Hama or Homs.
A dry fountain lies in the courtyard outside the villa’s elegant facade, where girls link arms and swing around in a circle.
Schools in opposition-held areas are generally funded by aid organizations, but have in the past been hit by bombardment.
“We’re always scared of bombardment and of the situation in general,” says one of the teachers, giving his name as Mohammed.
The building lies in rebel-held territory adjacent to regime-controlled parts of Aleppo city to the east, but also the major opposition stronghold of Idlib to the west.
Some three million people live in the Idlib province and adjacent areas of the neighboring Aleppo and Latakia provinces, around half of them displaced by war in other parts of Syria.
Earlier this month, many feared a regime assault on Idlib, but last week Damascus ally Moscow and rebel backer Ankara announced a deal to temporarily halt it.