Egypt acceded to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in May 1981. According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), However, the Egyptian government has no comprehensive legal instrument to deal with refugees—various fragmentary domestic legislative initiatives regulate their legal status.
Egypt hosts approximately 228,200 refugees. Individuals who want to obtain refugee status must be interviewed by a UNHCR representative. Refugees who pass the Refugee Status Determination Interview are provided with a UNHCR refugee yellow card. Social benefits are provided to the refugees by the UNHCR office in Egypt.
Refugees may be subject to security restrictions imposed by the Egyptian authorities and may also face arrest and detention. Many refugees have reported a lack of police protection and even police harassment. There is a high unemployment rate among refugees. Refugees who decide to leave Egypt irregularly also risk being targeted and attacked by human traffickers.
I. General Background
Egypt acceded to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) and to its 1967 Protocol in May 1981, but made reservations to five provisions, namely article 12(1) (personal status), article 20 (rationing), article 22(1) (access to primary education), article 23 (public relief and assistance), and article 24 (labor legislation and social security).
According to a report issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Egypt hosts Syrian, Sudanese, Ethiopian, Somali, Eritrean, Palestinian, and Iraqi refugees. UNHCR planning figures for December 2015 place the number of refugees in Egypt at around 228,200 (asylum seekers make up an additional 22,370). There are approximately 300,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt, including 134,000 who are registered with the UNHCR. Egypt continues to be a transit country for many refugees hoping to reach Europe.
II. Steps Taken to Determine Whether a Person is Entitled to Refugee Status
Individuals who want to obtain refugee status must have a Refugee Status Determination Interview with a representative of the UNHCR. The principal applicant and all of his or her family members must go through separate interviews at the UNHCR local office, presenting their UNHCR asylum-seeker registration cards, original identification documents (such as a passport or an ID card), and other documents that might be relevant to their refugee claim. Applicants are entitled to have a legal representative to assist them during their interview. At the end of the interview, applicants are issued an appointment slip by the interviewer indicating the date when they can start checking for their interview result, which is usually approximately eight weeks from the date of the interview.
According to UNHCR Egypt, individuals who are granted refugee status are those who are able to prove that they have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. They must also show that they have left the country of their nationality because of such fear and are unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country.
If the applicant is denied refugee status after the first interview, the local office of the UNHCR provides him or her with a negative decision letter that contains the reasons for denying the application. The denied applicant has the right to lodge an appeal to have the negative decision reconsidered.
III. Rules Applicable to Admitted Refugees
Refugees who pass the Refugee Status Determination Interview are provided with a UNHCR yellow refugee card, which is stamped by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Refugee Affairs section of the Ministry of Interior’s Department of Migration and Citizenship. According to the Ministry of Interior’s Decree No. 8180 of 1996, refugees generally receive a three-year temporary residency permit. This Decree is not being implemented, however, because of a ministerial decision allowing them only six-month renewable residency permits. Such permits are renewable as long as the refugee “remains of concern to UNHCR.”
IV. Assistance Offered to Refugees
Most refugees in Egypt, including those from Syria, are scattered in urban neighborhoods, where they rent and share accommodations. The Egyptian government provides no social benefits to refugees, other than permitting them access to education in public schools and health care in public hospitals. Any social benefits they receive are provided by Egypt’s UNHCR office. Although Egypt made a reservation to article 22, section 1 of the Refugee Convention, thereby denying refugees the right to be admitted to public schools, the Egyptian Minister of Education issued Ministerial Decree No. 24 in 1992, allowing the children of recognized refugees, which includes Syrians, to attend public schools. However, the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, has stated that only 53% percent of Syrian children that are eligible to enroll in schools attend, due to the lack of sufficient kindergartens and the inability of other schools to absorb more students.
The Egyptian Red Crescent, in cooperation with the UNHCR, provides Syrian families with cash assistance grants. According to the UNHCR, in 2015, 15,500 refugees received such grants, including twelve thousand Syrian refugees. These families were scored as severely vulnerable through the UNHCR’s ongoing socioeconomic/vulnerability assessment framework. Refugee families that are not currently receiving food or cash assistance and are large-sized, single-headed households or households with members suffering from a medical condition are the main recipients of those cash assistance grants.
V. Security Restrictions and Hardships
Egyptian authorities have imposed some security restrictions on refugees. For instance, in July 2013, the Egyptian government required Syrians to acquire entry visas, residency documents, and work permits before entering the country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that this decision was related to “current and temporary” security conditions. African refugees are also reportedly sometimes subject to police harassment and security restrictions. In November 2015, the Center for Refugee Solidarity issued a statement condemning the targeting and violent mistreatment of Sudanese refugees by the Egyptian security agencies. In its statement, the Center urged the Egyptian authorities to refrain from random checks and arrests of African refugees and to give Sudanese nationals freedom of movement and residence, and the right to work and own property.
Refugees also face arrest and detention by security agencies. The UNHCR reported that 3,058 had been arrested by the authorities for attempting to depart irregularly by sea between January and September 2015. Moreover, seventy-five female refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria are being held in detention at Al-Qanatir women’s prison for allegedly possessing forged passports, being undocumented, and attempting to enter or depart irregularly from Egypt. Additionally, African refugees who try to be smuggled into Israel face threats to their lives at the Egyptian-Israeli border. For example, in November 2015, at least fifteen Sudanese refugees were shot dead by the Egyptian security forces and eight more were injured in Egypt’s Sinai region as they reportedly attempted to enter Israel.
Many refugees reported a lack of police protection. According to a report issued by Refugee Council USA, Syrian and African refugees face regular sexual harassment and exploitation and receive no police protection, as demonstrated by the number of female refugees who are robbed, beaten, and harassed in the streets. The report also claims that when refugees attempt to report crimes to the police, they are treated with contempt and given no assistance.
In addition to the security restrictions and poor police protection, some Syrian refugees suffer other hardships during their stay in Egypt. Many can find no other place to live except small apartments in the poor neighborhoods of Cairo, which are full of drug addicts. Landlords also reportedly charge them extortionate rents, and their children are bullied at local schools because of their Syrian accent. Whereas Syrians refugees had initially been allowed into the country without visas, hundreds of them have been detained and deported since July 2013 for allegedly not having the proper residency paperwork to remain in Egypt.
There is a high unemployment rate among refugees. Despite Egypt not making a reservation against articles 17 and 18 of the Refugee Convention, which protect refugees’ rights to employment, refugees find it difficult to obtain Egyptian work permits. Article 11 of the Ministry of Labor’s Ministerial Resolution No. 390 of 1982 requires employers to prove that no Egyptian national is available to do a job before a work permit is issued to a refugee, a legal stipulation that has created a high refugee unemployment rate. A number of refugees report spending many months looking for low-paying jobs that no Egyptian is willing to take. The high unemployment rate of Sudanese refugees from Darfur, who were transferred from the refugee camp of Al-Salloum to Cairo, is among the array of difficulties that lead them to attempt to reach Europe by sea with the help of smugglers.
Refugees who decide to leave Egypt irregularly also risk being targeted and attacked by human traffickers. For example, Reem S., a twenty-nine-year-old Syrian refugee, stated that in August 2014, human traffickers kidnapped a refugee group in Alexandria and tortured them. According to Reem, they raped the women in the group, stole the refugees’ money, and did not provide them with places on their boats as promised. The refugees did not report the traffickers to security authorities out of fear. Likewise, human traffickers operating in the Sinai Peninsula have tortured and killed African refugees, mostly from Eritrea, who want to cross the Egyptian/Israeli border illegally.
VI. Legal Provisions Governing Refugees
There is no comprehensive legal instrument to deal with refugees or asylum seekers in Egypt. The Egyptian authorities have adopted a number of fragmentary domestic legislative initiatives to regulate the legal status of refugees and asylum seekers:
- The Egyptian Constitution of 2014 provides protection to refugees and asylum seekers; for instance, article 91 prohibits the extradition of political refugees.
- Law No. 154 of 2004, amending Law No. 26 of 1975 on nationality, prohibits the children of foreigners who are born on Egyptian soil from acquiring citizenship, as Egyptian nationality is granted only on the basis of descent.
- Law No. 104 of 1985 prevents foreign persons and companies from owning agricultural property, fertile land, or desert land in Egypt.
- Presidential Decree No. 331 of 1980 adopted the Refugee Convention as domestic law.
- Presidential Decree No. 89 of 1960 on the Residency and Entry of Foreigners bans foreigners who do not have valid travel documents from entering the country.
- Law No. 124 of 1958 prevents foreigners from owning agricultural land in Egyptian territory for security reasons. However, Law No. 15 of 1963 makes Palestinian refugees an exception to the provisions of Law No. 124.
Prepared by George Sadek
Senior Legal Research Analyst
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Last Updated: 12/30/2020