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.

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Business boost

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


Can Lebanon control cannabis cultivation?

A Syrian refugee (who asked to withhold his name) from Raqqa carries a bundle of cannabis during the harvest in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon. (Files/Reuters)
Updated 23 July 2018
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Can Lebanon control cannabis cultivation?

  • Legalizing cannabis means legalizing something that is illegal and used to achieve a forbidden pleasure
  • There is a social stigma in Lebanon associated with cannabis consumption and cultivation

BEIRUT: A heated debate is taking place in Lebanon after McKinsey & Co., the global management consulting firm hired by the government to help restructure the country’s economy, recommended the legalisation of growing medical marijuana.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri received the recommendation, which isn’t binding for the Lebanese government, and informed the US ambassador to Lebanon, Elizabeth Richard, that “the Lebanese Parliament is in the process of preparing the necessary laws for legalising the cultivation of cannabis for manufacturing marijuana pharmaceuticals as in Western countries.”
Some parliamentary blocs welcomed Berri’s stance, while others chose not to comment on it. Growing cannabis in Lebanon is classified as an act punishable by law, and consumers, as well as traders, are subject to legal prosecution.
No authority in Lebanon can accurately estimate the size of land cultivated with cannabis. Northern Bekaa Valley has always been the weakness of the absent state, and this allowed the de facto authorities to exploit its lands during the civil war and in the time of the Syrian occupation, which lasted 30 years and was followed by Hezbollah’s control.
Northern Bekaa is awash with cannabis fields, owing to its fertile ground that is adequate for growing this plant.
Every year, the security authorities publicly destroy lands in which cannabis was grown. Cannabis seedlings are planted between February and March every year, and the crops are harvested in September.
Cannabis cultivation has become a profitable profession for mafias that trade in cannabis, while the farmers receive the crumbs only.
Mona, a woman from Northern Bekaa who did not want to use her full name, said the fields surrounding her house were spacious and could be cultivated with cannabis, but her values prevented her from resorting to this type of farming.
She believes that by legalizing cannabis cultivation, the government is exempting those who have planted cannabis and traded in it from punishment.
“This is against the law and does not make any sense,” she said.
A Hezbollah member of Parliament, who wished to remain anonymous, refused to say whether he was for against the legalization of cannabis cultivation.
He told Arab News: “Is the Lebanese government capable of controlling cannabis cultivation? Let’s not lie to one another: no one can control it.
“Legalizing cannabis cultivation means that the government is to control and establish a company similar to the Régie tobacco company, issue licenses for farmers and receive the crops,” he continued. “This company may receive the crops, but will it be the full amount or will part of it be sent to the black market? And will the product be sold inside Lebanon or will the state sell it to other countries?”
The Hezbollah MP added: “Allowing the cultivation of cannabis means legalizing it to those who have a license and those who don’t, and this will reflect on society and the young generation.
“There is a social stigma in Lebanon associated with cannabis consumption and cultivation—a person who consumes or grows this plant is considered a failure.
“This country is neither the US nor the Netherlands—it is Lebanon. The ideas of the Dutch society are different from ours; they enjoy absolute freedom and know how to deal with it. As for us, should we legalize cannabis just because we are going through economic difficulties? So if we were looking for financial gains, should we legalize prostitution as well? Definitely not, and these things must be discussed at a religious level first and must be socially controlled.”
Rajaa Makki, a social psychology professor of the Lebanese University, said: “Cannabis cultivation might serve the country’s economy, but it needs to be regulated to limit violations.”
From a social/psychological point of view, Makki does not believe legalizing cannabis will yield positive results in a country like Lebanon, which lacks clear laws.
She added: “An individual who resorts to drugs usually has an emotional attachment, which means she/he is ill and is subconsciously seeking to have drugs replace what she/he lacks.”
“From here, legalizing cannabis means legalizing something that is illegal and used to achieve a forbidden pleasure.”
Makki stated that she was against legalizing cannabis in the absence of awareness campaigns.
“Awareness campaigns are an integral part of the process, especially at the social psychological level, and we are going to need more rehabilitation and treatment centers,” she said.
Those who are pro-cannabis cultivation claim that legalizing it will bring Lebanon money, while economists believe this step would contribute to a GDP growth rate of 0.5 percent.
Economist Louis Hobeika explained that the Lebanese government believes legalizing cannabis will control its cultivation and provide the country with legitimate income.
He added: “I am against it though, because the prices of the substance extracted from marijuana to be used for medical purposes are not globally high. Many countries are in this business and we are not inventing anything that can compete with their medical marijuana products.
“In addition to that, there is poor demand for medical marijuana, and there is an illusion that legalizing cannabis will earn Lebanon billions of dollars.”
He also said: “Who in Lebanon can control cannabis cultivation and who can guarantee that the business does not result in producing narcotics? The government cannot control it and a mafia that funds cannabis, probably in cooperation with the government, will be born, and we will find ourselves in a bigger problem.”
Hobeika asked: “Does Lebanon enforce traffic or construction laws as it should? What do you think would be the case for the law of cannabis cultivation?”
He stressed that it is necessary to help farmers in Northern Bekaa — and everyone who cultivates cannabis — find an alternative crop that generates revenue.
“Why don’t we grow flowers instead of importing them?” he suggested. “Or maybe exotic fruits—yes, they need additional efforts compared to cannabis cultivation as well as a new attitude, but these are positive products that do not harm our children.”
Pharmacist Samer Sobra was surprised how cannabis is to be used for medical purposes in Lebanon.
He said: “Cannabis in Lebanon is currently sold as a narcotic substance and not used for manufacturing pharmaceuticals. The substance extracted from cannabis for medical use is cannabidiol (CBD). It is used for manufacturing cough medicines, mood regulators, and relaxants in specialized labs. These medicines are not manufactured in Lebanon but imported from abroad.
“In Lebanon, there isn’t a high demand for these medicines which include CBD in their formula,” he added. “I believe it would be more profitable for Lebanon’s economy to sell the substance to other countries.”