Refugees in Egypt struggle to live as economic hardships deepen

Ahmad Al-Khatib is one of nearly 250,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers living in Egypt, more than half of them Syrian. (Reuters)
Updated 10 April 2019
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Refugees in Egypt struggle to live as economic hardships deepen

  • More than 77 percent of Syrian families in Egypt were in debt in 2017, according to a UNHCR survey
  • Nearly 93 percent of families were unable to repay the loans

CAIRO: Syrian refugee Ahmad Al-Khatib and his 16-year-old son both work as tuk-tuk drivers in Cairo, but it is not enough to pay the bills.
Tough economic reforms and rising costs have hit refugees and migrants in Egypt particularly hard, aid groups say.
Help from a charity is the only way Khatib can cover the family’s rent. He also borrows cash from friends.
“How am I going to repay them?” he asked.
More than 77 percent of Syrian families in Egypt were in debt in 2017, up from 73 percent the year before, according to unpublished data seen by Reuters from a UNHCR survey of more than 100,000 Syrians.
Nearly 93 percent of families were unable to repay the loans, up from 81 percent in 2016, the year Egypt devalued its currency as part of an IMF loan deal.
Egypt has much smaller refugee populations than Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where most of those displaced by Syria’s war have fled. But refugees and asylum seekers reside in Egyptian communities rather than camps, and those without means are directly exposed to economic hardships.
Nearly 250,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers live in Egypt, more than half of them Syrian.
Khatib, 58, suffers from multiple illnesses, including a prostate infection, but cannot afford all the treatments he needs. He usually eats just one meal a day to cut costs.
Arrivals of refugees and asylum seekers have surged, with about a 25 percent increase registered over the past two years, UNHCR data shows.
Since 2016 Egypt has also prevented large numbers of migrants and refugees from leaving by boat toward Europe, efforts that have been praised by the European Union, but this, combined with the increase in arrivals, have left many stranded in some of Egypt’s poorest neighborhoods.
The Egypt State Information Service could not immediately be reached for comment, but Egypt has previously said that the country’s treatment of refugees is exemplary because they can access services such as health care without discrimination and live freely among the Egyptian people.
Economic reforms have not only made life more difficult for Syrians. The International Organization for Migration says requests for assistance with housing costs, medical expenses and returns started to increase in June and have more than doubled since September. The majority come from Sudanese and Ethiopians.
“We believe it’s a consequence of economic reforms and the cut of gas subsidies, which has led to an increase in basic goods costs,” said Laurent De Boeck, IOM’s head in Egypt.
Austerity measures mean Egyptian landlords are stricter collecting rent, he said. Migrants mainly work in the informal sector and some poor Egyptians now view them as competitors, he added.
When Hala Bekdash fled shelling in her native Syria and brought her children to Egypt in 2012, life in their new country was affordable.
But during the past two years prices have rocketed and the family’s bills have doubled, the 32-year-old said.
Bekdash, who works long hours as a teacher, cannot afford to renew her expired passport, which means she cannot renew her Egyptian residency either, resulting in a fine she does not know how to pay.
But she does not want to return to Syria, where her husband would risk being conscripted.
“The building we lived in and where we had our shop was destroyed,” she said. “We have nothing left in Syria.”


Beirut praises ‘progress’ on maritime border dispute

Updated 21 May 2019
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Beirut praises ‘progress’ on maritime border dispute

  • Israel and Lebanon both claim ownership of an 860-square-kilometer area of the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Lebanon insists that the area lies within its economic zone and refuses to give up a single part of it

BEIRUT: Lebanon has hinted that progress is being made in efforts to resolve its maritime border dispute with Israel following the return of a US mediator from talks with Israeli officials.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield returned to Lebanon following talks in Israel where he outlined Lebanese demands regarding the disputed area and the mechanism to reach a settlement.

The US mediator has signaled a new push to resolve the dispute after meetings with both Lebanese and Israeli officials.

Israel and Lebanon both claim ownership of an 860-square-kilometer area of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to begin offshore oil and gas production in the offshore Block 9 as it grapples with an economic crisis.

A source close to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who met with Satterfield on Monday after his return to Lebanon, told Arab News that “there is progress in the efforts, but the discussion is not yet over.” He did not provide further details.

Sources close to the Lebanese presidency confirmed that Lebanon is counting on the US to help solve the demarcation dispute and would like to accelerate the process to allow exploration for oil and gas to begin in the disputed area.

Companies that will handle the exploration require stability in the area before they start working, the sources said.

Previous efforts by Satterfield to end the dispute failed in 2012 and again last year after Lebanon rejected a proposal by US diplomat Frederick Hoff that offered 65 percent of the disputed area to Lebanon and 35 percent to Israel. Lebanon insisted that the area lies within its economic zone and refused to give up a single part of it.

Satterfield has acknowledged Lebanon’s ownership of around 500 sq km of the disputed 850 sq km area.

Lebanon renewed its commitment to a mechanism for setting the negotiations in motion, including the formation of a tripartite committee with representatives of Lebanon, Israel and the UN, in addition to the participation of the US mediator. Beirut also repeated its refusal to negotiate directly with Israel.

Two months ago, Lebanon launched a marine environmental survey in blocks 4 and 9 in Lebanese waters to allow a consortium of French, Italian and Russian companies to begin oil and gas exploration in the area.