ADIR - L'altro diritto

Egypt: Towards a culture of Legal Integration?
Cairo's Urban refugees and Egypt's reservations to the 1951 Convention

Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, 2004


In her study of refugee integration, Frechette suggests a multi-disciplinary approach to measure the social adjustments refugees make in the country of asylum. Although Frechette lists Economic, Social, Psychological, and Political/Legal/Institutional integration as possible models for examining how refugees adjust and participate in their surroundings-my assumption is that for Cairo's urban refugees this final model is the most important. Frechette notes that,

Political integration varies significantly with the laws and policies of the host state and may, therefore, occur at any time with respect to the other aspects of integration, if at all. In states defined in such a way as never to allow outsiders to be able to participate politically, political integration may never occur. In states defined in such a way as to allow outsiders to participate immediately upon arrival, political integration may occur even before economic integration.

Stefan Sperl's noted in his analysis of the UNHCR in Cairo that for most urban refugees, "local integration remains a distant goal and that UNHCR is increasingly unable to provide an adequate level of support, resettlement has become the only viable durable solution for refugees in Cairo. (1)"

In numerous studies, of a wide variety of Cairo's urban refugees, from the more established Sudanese community, to the smaller groups of Ethiopian, Eritreans, Liberians and Sierra Leonians, legal status dominates all aspects of life in Egypt-- greatly affecting the refugees' ability to look for work, interact with other refugee groups or Egyptians, and to even feel safe in Cairo. My research assumes that regardless of the refugees' objectives in Cairo: successfully applying for refugee status and resettlement, integration into Egyptian society, a temporary stay followed by voluntary repatriation, or a failed application, legal difficulties are the root source of a much broader swath of problems ranging from basic security concerns to diet and health issues. This means that a thorough and intense scrutiny of the current sources of legal difficulties is particularly relevant to understanding why local integration remains a "distant goal." Although it is impossible to point to one particular frame of legal protection, it is safe to say that Egypt's reservations to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which to this day dominates the debate on refugee rights, is at the heart of the problem. Although simple compliance with UN norms would not ensure safety or integration in Cairo for refugees, it represents a starting point for a larger dialogue about legal integration for refugees. Such a dialogue is necessary if refugees are to get the support services and basic security they are entitled to while completing their applications for refugee status determination with UNHCR.

Current obstacles to Legal Integration

Although treaties, agreements, and international standards never fully guarantee a refugee's well being, it is worth noting that Egypt is a signatory to a number of documents which detail Egypt's basic obligations towards its refugee population. Egypt has signed the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (with reservations), the Organization for African Unity's Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (2) and an amendment to the Egyptian constitution guarantees refugees the right to asylum (3). However this vast umbrella of legal protections (as in any country) is largely dependent on 1. The willingness of the state to educate employees as to the relevance of these protections 2. Actively enforcing these laws. The problem is further complicated because Egypt does not do its own Refugee Status Determination. This means that the vast majority of work falls to UNHCR who is forced to spend their funds and efforts determining refugee status and then coordinating with Western governments for resettlement (4) instead of pursuing its original mandate by lobbying for the protection of refugees.

There is reason to believe that there was an opportunity to change the status quo. A recent discovery by FMRS professor Barbara Harrell-Bond of a presidential Decree No. 188 of the year 1984 called for the establishment of a "permanent committee for Refugees' Affairs" and that "The Committee mentioned in the previous article shall be competent to asses asylum requests in implementation of the 1951 Refugee Convention. (5)" A report from the Seminar on Rights and Duties of the Refugee in the Host Country and Their Application in Egyptian Legislation held at Zagizig University in 1984, states, "The seminar is in favour of the republican decree issued in May 1984 on the formation of a committee to deal with the refugees' affair, which represents an actual contribution to grant the right of asylum to the refugees and assures protection of their rights. (6)" This initiative undertaken by the Dept. of Foreign Affairs, the Interior Ministry and other important state bureaucracies was never followed up and has since drifted into obscurity.

Despite recent pressure to revive the initiative from UNHCR, it is important to note that the recommendations from both the Egyptian committee and the Zagizig seminar in 1984 remain especially pertinent in 2004. The current paradigm will continue to persist because Egypt seems extremely unwilling to undertake the expense and bureaucratic headache of coming up with an interdepartmental consensus on Refugee Status Determination. This decision not only places a huge strain on UNHCR, it also keeps UNHCR from doing what it does best, advocating for the rights of refugees. According to a 2002 interview with Assistant Regional Representative, Vincent Cochetel, "This office was not meant to be what it is. UNHCR has been working in Egypt on refugee status determination procedure since 1954. It is filling a vacuum, determining status for the government by default because the authorities are not ready to assume responsibility. It is not natural for UNHCR to get involved in this field." (7) This allocation of authority means that from their very arrival in Egypt refugees look not to the Egyptian government for support or guidance but to the UNHCR. The Egyptian government, according to Ana Liria-French, Office representative from UNHCR, "are not involved. They view refugees as not an Egyptian problem, it is a problem that comes from abroad. We are trying to get them involved. (8)" Research on the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in Cairo by Brown, Riordan, and Sharpe explains the phenomenon this way: "Despite perceived shortcomings and failures of UNHCR, Eritreans and Ethiopians still know that it is the only organization with the legal charge to protect them." (9) I would suggest that this division establishes what becomes a larger pattern that emerges in the research and anthropological studies of my fellow FMRS students-refugees feel from their very arrival in Cairo that at best the Egyptian government wants nothing to do with them, at worst they feel that the Egyptian bureaucracies are aligned against them and their right to apply for asylum. The fruit of the Egyptian government's mentality has been that that almost all of Cairo's refugees view resettlement as their only durable solution. As Ms. French stated, "The expectation of refugees in Cairo is resettlement. (10)" But since currently only 30% of refugees are approved for resettlement this means that there are few solutions or attempts to address the other 70% (11). Because Egypt has no legal framework to deal with these refugees those who are denied RSD or who never apply are stuck with UNHCR and a handful of NGOs to provide a number of critical services.

As if the current lack of understanding and exchange of information isn't bad enough, incidents like the most recent roundup of Africans in April, 2003 (12) only serve to reinforce and increase the fear and distrust of the Egyptian government. This climate is in no one's interests. UNHCR is hampered from doing the job that it does best, filling a vacuum in Egyptian policy while struggling to balance its own reputation against refugees who correctly view it as both judge and jury of their status determination. Egypt loses face internationally as the press covers episodes like the arbitrary arrest of over 200 Africans in Maadi and other districts last year. (13) But most tragically, refugees, those who have already suffered the most, are forced into a limbo state where they are denied the human resources that they desperately need to maintain a minimum standard of life while awaiting the results of their case. But the current status quo will persist until someone convinces the Egyptian government to reconsider its reservations to the 1951 Charter and take some initial steps towards legally recognizing the rights of refugees.

Egypt's Reservations to the 1951 UN Charter on the Status of Refugees

After ratifying the UN Charter on the status of Refugees Egypt issued formal reservations to, "articles 20 and 22-24 which grant the same rights to refugees as to nationals with regard to elementary education, public relief, terms of labour and social security as well as article 12(1) relating to personal status. (14)" These reservations mean that after already facing extreme persecution which has caused them to seek sanctuary in Egypt in the first place, refugees are then cut off from the services they need to live, much less assimilate, into Egyptian society. Research suggests that these legal barriers only further serve to alienate, refugees and their families-- severely crippling vital social mechanisms for aid, information and assistance. But there is reason to suspect that ignorance on both sides, fear of Egyptian authorities, uneducated government officials, and practical restrictions on UNHCR's resources have compounded difficulties. Several prominent events have rocked the refugee community in Cairo only worsening the perception of Egyptian authorities: the arrest of protesting Ethiopians outside of UNHCR in 1992, a series of indiscriminate roundups of African nationals and widely circulated stories of police ignoring UNHCR blue or yellow cards. Brown, Riordan and Sharpe in their study of Ethiopian and Eritrean communities of Cairo state, "The basis of the security problems of Eritreans and Ethiopians in Cairo is their predominantly legally unrecognized status; they thus above all fear arrest and deportation. (15)" Legal difficulties and refugees' insecurity about their own legal status in Cairo combine to form an enormous social hurdle that makes legal integration and therefore local integration almost impossible.

Egypt's Economic Crisis

It is impossible to overstate the detrimental effect of Egypt's current economic crisis on the refugee communities of Cairo. From the government perspective probably the greatest obstacle to removing Egypt's reservations is that they fear admitting refugees to public services like Education (Article 22), Work Benefits 24(1 & 2), and Public Relief (Article 23) would greatly increase the cost of these already overextended government programs. Because of the severity and profound depth of the current economic crisis the Egyptian government is greatly concerned about adding any additional cost to an already threadbare system and so regardless of the spirit of the 1951 convention or non-discrimination clauses (16), they view the relationship between nationals and refugees through a paradigm of mutual exclusion. For example, UNHCR proposed a micro-credit plan for female-headed households was opposed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Because of the grave employment situation faced by nationals. (17)"This current environment has the worst possible repercussions for refugees who without the protections of a home country are forced to depend on UNHCR while the Egyptian government avoids support of any programs which it views as a drain on limited resources that could be used for nationals.

Although a direct comparison is perhaps not appropriate-- it is interesting to note that Thomas Kuhlman's research in the Sudan encountered and criticized this notion of refugees as a drain on society,

It is commonly believed among Sudanese that refugees exert pressure on scarce resources: housing, education, health, public utilities. This is easy to debunk: public utilities and social services are poor because of the decay of government, not because of an increase in users. On the contrary, a denser population ought to make it cheaper to provide these facilities, so the influx could have led to better services - at least after an interval. (18)

Why Remove the Reservations?

Despite the current economic disaster and the general desire of the Egyptian government to get by "on the cheap" the current situation is detrimental to all parties. The climate of fear, neglect and an almost complete absence of dialogue between refugees and UNHCR not to mention the Egyptian government, means that concrete steps must be taken that will clearly show that Egypt is committed to the safety and welfare of the refugees currently residing in Cairo as long as they are applying for RSD. All of the research shows that Egypt's reservations to the 1951 Convention have done little to stop the flow of refugees and that these same reservations have forced refugees to survive on the margins away from government surveillance and in a legal limbo. A handful of NGOs and UNHCR have put together piecemeal solutions to a wide swathe of issues including: medicine, health, social security, education and employment. It is no surprise that these are the same issues that Egypt expressed their reservations to in the 1951 Convention. However, by avoiding responsibility in these critical areas Egypt has created and perpetuated a systematic culture of neglect with regards to refugees and dependence on local NGOs to fill the void. As Sperl states

The Government has, however, so far taken very few concrete steps to fulfill the obligations and responsibilities stipulated by the Convention. The only significant development since the time of accession is the introduction in 1998 of a Refugee Identity Card issued by RO Cairo and stamped with a residence permit by the authorities. Further action is likely to follow with the take-over by the Egyptian authorities of the refugee status determination procedure which is foreseen for the year 2002. (19)

2002 has come and passed and Egypt seems no closer to taking over RSD. If there is going to be any progress made from the current trend, Egypt must begin to take some steps in the right direction towards the larger goal of doing its own RSD. Removing Egypt's reservations to the 1951 Convention despite the anticipated formal costs for the Egyptian government-would have an immediate, positive impact and would indicate that Egypt is serious about addressing the size and scope of the current crisis. This move would at least give some substance to the claim made by Ambassador Khadrawy, director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Egypt, has always been considered a safe haven for people seeking refuge from persecution in their own countries. (20)" It is too much to hope that Egypt, overnight would decide to do its own RSD but by removing its reservations, the Egyptian government could show Western resettlement countries and UNHCR that it is serious about becoming a partner in caring for refugees as opposed to an ambivalent host.

Personal Status: Article 12(1)

Article 12(1) of the 1951 Convention states, "The personal status of a refugee shall be governed by the law of the country of his domicile, or, if he has no domicile, by the law of the country of his residence. (21)" Egypt, like many other Arab countries, is particularly sensitive to issues of personal status because of the perception that international personal status law often directly conflicts with Shari'a law, cited as the principal source of law in the Egyptian Constitution. This may be the true motivation behind the Egyptian government's reservation as the legal argument seems surprisingly contradictory.

The explanation for the Egyptian reservation states,

Egypt formulated a reservation to article 12 (1) because it is in contradiction with the internal laws of Egypt. This article provides that the personal status of a refugee shall be governed by the law of the country of his domicile or, failing this, of his residence. This formula contradicts article 25 of the Egyptian civil code, which reads as follows: "The judge declares the applicable law in the case of persons without nationality or with more than one nationality at the same time. In the case of persons where there is proof, in accordance with Egypt, of Egyptian nationality, and at the same time accordance with one or more foreign countries of nationality of that country, the Egyptian law must be applied." (22)

However there is absolutely no conflict between the international law for refugees and Egypt's concerns with the preeminence of Egyptian law in the case of dual-nationals (where one of the nationalities is Egyptian) or stateless refugees. It should be obvious that no refugee with Egyptian citizenship would apply for refugee status from Egypt. It is a simple tenant of the 1951 convention that refugee status must be made outside of the state of persecution. (23)

In the case of stateless refugees, there is no reason why, as long as they reside in Egypt they could not be governed by Egyptian law, while their case was being determined by UNHCR.

Rationing: Article 20

The article on rationing was inserted into the 1951 convention after World War II as a clause to ensure that refugees received equal treatment as compared to nationals in any kind of emergency situation where necessities were rationed. The article states, "Where a rationing system exists, which applies to the population at large and regulates the general distribution of products in short supply, refugees shall be accorded the same treatment as nationals."

The current financial crisis means that once again Egypt has begun to issue ration cards. According to a Cairo Times article, "The coupon scheme set to begin on 1 May, is designed to provide consumers with subsidies on six key foodstuffs, including rice, cooking oil, pasta, tea, fuul and lentils. (24)" But the real obstacle to extending the program to refugees is the mismanagement of the ration cards described by Akhtar Ahmad as "the costliest food subsidy program in the world. (25)" If a much-needed reorganization of the ration system was to take place, the government could at least consider the inclusion of refugees in the program. This would simply bolster Egyptian claims that they were serious about coming into compliance with the spirit of equality for refugees as outlined in the 1951 convention and numerous subsequent documents that Egypt has signed.

Social Security: Article 24(b) and 24(3)

The current reality for refugees in Egypt is simple: there is no such thing as social security. Currently, Cairo's urban refugees rely on a patchwork of institutions with varying missions, objectives, methods to dole out a number of greatly overworked and understaffed services that are essential to maintaining a minimum standard of life in Cairo-this is what passes as social security. Furthermore, as Ahraaf Azim a community service officer with UNHCR noted, "We have seen a doubling of our target population in two years. (26)" This means that there is an ever-increasing demand for UNHCR's limited services, which it is increasingly pressed to maintain due to the high demand from new arrivals and their dependents. Furthermore, because it is almost impossible for a refugee to get a work permit they are also not able to avail themselves of: sickness and maternity leave, unemployment, pensions, permanent disability benefits or any of the other categories elaborated in Egypt's Social Security scheme. (27) Within the context of Social Services Egypt's reservation mirrors Egypt's broader approach of neglect, avoidance and a dependence on a network of local NGOs.

Article 21(b) states,

Social security (legal provisions in respect of employment injury, occupational diseases, maternity, sickness, disability, old age, death, unemployment, family responsibilities and any other contingency which, according to national laws or regulations, is covered by a social security scheme), subject to the following limitations:

(i) There may be appropriate arrangements for the maintenance of acquired rights and rights in course of acquisition;

(ii) National laws or regulations of the country of residence may prescribe special arrangements concerning benefits or portions of benefits which are payable wholly out of public funds, and concerning allowances paid to persons who do not fulfill the contribution conditions prescribed for the award of a normal pension.

And Article 24(3),

The Contracting States shall extend to refugees the benefits of agreements concluded between them, or which may be concluded between them in the future, concerning the maintenance of acquired rights and rights in the process of acquisition in regard to social security, subject only to the conditions which apply to nationals of the States signatory to the agreements in question.

The issue of Social Security is one of the pertinent examples that demonstrate the attitude of the Egyptian government vis-à-vis refugees. This article has a specific provision, which allows signatories to the Convention to determine for themselves how Social Security Benefits are extended to refugees. Egypt could remove its reservation and use Article 21 b (i) and still exercise full sovereignty over what access refugees have to Social Security. Even if Egypt was to extend the most basic of services to refugees it would at least put them within a framework and context. But this option has not been exercised by the government. By excluding refugees from so many services the Egyptian government has created a disturbing culture of neglect, which is becoming a self-perpetuating cycle. Refugees look only to UNHCR and their partner NGOs for help while the Egyptian government avoids the issue altogether. By removing the reservation, recognizing that refugees have some basic rights to social services and working to share the burden with UNHCR and donor countries in a cooperative framework Egypt would not only improve its image internationally but increase its options. Currently this kind of international cooperation is impossible because there is always a crisis or emergency which precludes discussion about improving the access of refugees to necessary social services not to mention social security. The issue is further complicated because Egypt refuses to recognize the right of refugees to work.

Work: Article 17, 24(1)(a) and 24(2)

An article by Mike Kagan, written in 2001 addresses what is probably one of the most common misperceptions of refugees in Egypt: that working in Egypt is illegal for refugees. But as Mr. Kagan points out, "Egypt's reservations exempt refugees from workplace protections, such as law governing wages, hours, and benefits. However, Egypt entered no reservation to Article 17 (wage earning employment) which provides a right to work to many refugees. (28)" Furthermore, Article 17 goes further, "prohibiting any discrimination against refugees compared to other foreigners in obtaining work permits." (29) There are also clauses within article 17 that facilitate access to work permits for refugees who have lived in Egypt for over a certain length of time. Although this may sound good on paper the bitter reality for Cairo's refugees is that it is currently purely academic. As Sperl noted in his analysis of UNHCR in Cairo, "Despite the fact that Egypt has acceded to the 1951 Convention, refugees are not allowed to work and can only secure an income through illegal employment in the informal sector of the economy. (30)"

In study after study, refugees describe the difficulty, danger, and frustrations associated with work in Cairo. Very few refugees ever apply successfully for a work permit and then only with the support of powerful employers, even the FMRS department has had extreme difficulty getting a work permit for a Sudanese researcher. For most refugees, the size and complexity of Egyptian bureaucracy and the historical distrust of Egyptian authorities would make applying for a work card a nearly impossible ordeal. In an interview with Egypt's Insight Magazine, Ambassador Khadrawy, director of refugee affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "points out that due to over-population, the country is already confronted with an unemployment problem. (31)" But this kind of simplistic thinking does little to recognize the economic realities of the situation. Currently, refugees are not guaranteed any of the expensive benefits that must be given to native Egyptians and represent a source of cheap labor, completely unregulated by the government. A brief survey of past studies on the employment of refugees in Cairo will reveal that (like a large percentage of Egyptians) most refugees are employed in the informal sector, away from government regulation and high profile work that might draw undue attention. It seems that if the purpose of Egypt's reservation to the convention is to avoid refugees "undercutting" native Egyptians (32) removing the reservation to article 24 which requires that Egypt give benefits to recognized refugees equal to natives would make sense.

One example of a market that has been greatly influenced by refugees is domestic work-- FMRS studies of Sudanese, Somali, Ethiopian and Ertirean communities in Cairo show that a large percentage of women are the principal breadwinners in refugee families, because they are far more likely to be employed as domestic workers, work that is attractive in part because it avoids all government interference or regulation, and because wages are typically higher than available jobs for men like day laborers (33). Although the hours are long and the pay is low, it seems that it is a market that is unattractive to many urban Egyptians and so has been opened up to refugees. Government opposition to refugees working when unemployment is high (currently 24% for women) has not stopped refugee women from working in the upper class homes and apartments in Maadi, Zamalek or Mohandiseen. Instead domestic work once taken by young Egyptian girls from the countryside is now a true niche market for refugee women who operate under the table and enjoy absolutely no government regulation. (34)

Education: Article 22

Article 22 simply states, "The Contracting States shall accord to refugees the same treatment as is afforded to nationals with respect to elementary education."

Most experts agree that the Egyptian public education system is currently suffering a crisis of historic dimensions. In a personal communication with Professor El-Safty, an expert on Egyptian education, former FMRS student Wesal Afifi cites her as stating, "there is no positive aspect about education in Egypt. (35)" This means that education is viewed by Egyptian administrators through a crisis mentality and they have extreme reservations about adding refugee children to an already decrepit and struggling system. Or as stated by Dingemans in her study of Sudanese refugees in Cairo, "As their own facilities are overstretched, the Egyptian authorities are not likely to enhance educational conditions for refugees to the extent it exceeds provision for local children. (36)"

Two FMRS field reports on public education and refugees in Cairo have focused on the almost total disintegration of the Egyptian public system. Egyptian parents are confronted with overcrowding, corruption, rote learning, insufficient facilities and poorly paid teachers. Refugees, largely due to Egypt's reservation to the 1951 convention, face all this and even more. School officials demand before enrollment: a passport, birth certificate, a letter from the embassy, photographs and last school certificate. (37) On top of the difficulty of accumulating so much paper from a hostile government, refugee children are also faced with the difficulty of learning a foreign language (Arabic, English or French) as well as somehow integrating into what is often an unfriendly learning-environment.

Still, despite these obstacles the Egyptian government is to be commended for a number of actions that have been taken in the spirit of the 1951 convention specifically a Ministerial Decree (No. 24 of 1992) which permits, "Sudanese, Libyans, Jordanians, children of political refugees, and children of Palestinians who work in the government of public sector or military in Egypt, (38)" to enroll in public schools.

However, since the 1992 declaration few tangible steps have been taken to actually implement the decree but in 2000 UNHCR made some attempts to reform some of the bureaucracy to make it more friendly to refugees, including revoking the requirement for a letter from the embassy an obvious impossibility for refugees (39). Since the vast majority of refugees in Cairo are from the Sudan and since Afifi was assured by the minister that "there is no such thing as a crisis of space for students and that a place in school can be found for everyone with no discrimination between Egyptians and Wafideen students, (40)" it seems that Egypt's continued reservation is merely a formality: having admitted by far the largest refugee cohort in Cairo, a continuation of the reservation makes little practical sense.

However, if the Egyptian government is concerned about refugee students overwhelming Egyptian public schools they could do much more to improve the conditions for refugee children in private schools. For those parents who chose to try to enroll their children in private school tuition, textbook fees, and a culture of exclusion create a significant barrier to refugee families even if the total cost for the institution would be quite low (41). In the face of so much adversity it seems that many refugee parents simply keep their children at home (42) preferring boredom and a lack of education to the perceived risk and frustration in trying to get their children enrolled in school. But even private schools, which have been founded to specifically to meet the needs of Cairo's refugee population and to follow the Egyptian national curricula face tremendous obstacles; Sacred Heart in Sakakeeni, have problems enrolling their students in the national exams, "Since the center is not a recognized school (by the Egyptian government) it must pay for its students to sit the exams at official centers. The administration fees for this process are one of the biggest areas of the center's expenditure. (43)"

If the Egyptian government were to recognize refugee schools and crack down on government corruption which necessitates schools like Sakakeeni paying additional funds to bribe officials (44) they would not be extending refugee children any extras benefits-they would simply be complying with their obligations under the 1952 convention as well as the spirit of general equality and institutional reform that is obviously a pressing concern for Egyptian parents as well. By removing the bureaucratic obstacles to private education for refugees they might also be able to encourage many refugee parents to send their children to private schools reducing in part any additional stress on the public school system.

Public Relief: Article 23

Article 23 states, "The contracting States shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory the same treatment with respect to public relief and assistance as is accorded to their nationals."

The current system of public relief for Egyptian nationals is composed of two schemes, "The Mubarak Pension for those over 60, who worked in the informal economy, and the handicapped, and the Nassar Social Bank which gives limited public relief from funds that are collected from the zakat. (45)"

As noted before the current economic crisis makes it especially difficult for Egypt to include refugees in schemes that they perceive as taking away from the limited funds available for nationals. However, with regards to the two programs, the number of refugees over 60 is a relatively limited group in Cairo. Although there are no hard statistics available only the more established communities of Sudanese and Somali refugees seem to have a significant portion of refugees over 60. As for the handicapped, they a re currently given special attention by UNHCR and CARITAS-presumably any Egyptian funds disbursed to handicapped refugees would be in addition to those funds distributed by UNHCR.

As for the zakat this is a religious tax demanded of all Muslims, which is then contributed to the poor and needy. It would directly contradict the universalistic principals of charity, and compassion which are at the very heart of the Islamic faith to deny refugees access to some small funds simply because they were not Egyptian. (46)


The current approach to most refugee issues in Egypt today is based on a coalition of grassroots organizations that work with the UNHCR to provide some of the most basic and necessary services to refugees. Although all of these institutions contribute to the well being of refugees it should be pointed out that, from the smallest of issues like medicine and first-aid, to important issues like education and work all the way to RSD, the Egyptian government plays no constructive role in the lives of refugees. Until today the framework for this lack of interaction has been (and continues to be) Egypt's reservations to the 1951 convention, even though subsequent treaties and agreements hold the government to a higher degree of accountability-- because the 1951 convention is the benchmark and because many of these other agreements have few mechanisms for enforcement, Egypt has been successful in avoiding these further legal obligations.

Although there is some hope that the "Four Freedoms Law" just signed by the parliament will greatly improve quality of life for the Sudanese Refugees in Cairo, returning their privileges to pre-1995 status with regards to work, education, property, and residency-I fear that the current paradigm will continue. There will most certainly be a lag between the official acceptance of the "Four Freedoms Law" and its actual implementation and I would suggest that since Egypt is taking such a major step now is the time to reconsider its reservations to the Convention. If the opportunity is missed and the reservations remain, we will see the perpetuation of the current system-characterized by ambivalence at best, persecution at worst, and a strong dependence on local NGOs to provide patchy solutions that are often under funded, understaffed and need to reach a much larger portion of the refugee population.

To its credit UNHCR seems poised to change some of its focus from RSD to achieving modest gains for refugees in areas like work and education, "What we want is for them to have a job, to have their kids in school... To do vital and concrete things. Helping them to have proper jobs. To go to the ministry with them... (47)" This approach is essential and in welcome contrast to the philosophy of the Egyptian government which seems to be as long as our own resources are overtaxed we cannot be expected to provide even the most basic services to refugees. This amounts to ignoring the problem or passing the responsibility off to other institutions who at best plug a few holes while refugees suffer the brunt of the consequences. Cairo's urban refugees, as a direct result of this neglect, have been forced underground, struggling to get by in a legal limbo which often jeopardizes their safety while surviving as best they can through informal and unregulated means. Stefan Sperl summed up the problem exactly for UNHCR when he described the effects of the lack of legal integration, "The most important downside of the Government's attitude is its fundamental unwillingness to permit the legal integration of refugees into Egyptian society." (48)

But Egypt's policy of neglect while saving Egypt some cost has not fulfilled its larger (unstated) purpose of discouraging refugees. Refugees are still coming and will continue to do so (49)-as long as conditions in their home countries are so horrific that they are willing to give up everything to come to Cairo. If NGOs and foreign governments wish to have any impact on the future cohorts of refugee who will arrive in Egypt it is my conclusion that they must concentrate on changing the philosophy of the Egyptian government. This means shifting the paradigm from cost avoidance (probably the most important factor in why Egypt has resisted taking on RSD and other issues) to a concern for refugees' well-being and security while applying for RSD, a shift which must give highest priority to including refugees into the local legal framework. This is not any easy undertaking, going against almost 20 years of a national policy (if unstated) of avoiding any cost associated with refugees. It is important to note that successful programs of integration or resettlement like CIREFCA in Central America, were successful because UNHCR managed to convince governments to not just cooperate but contribute to plans and take "ownership" over the problem (50). This is currently a dynamic that is completely absent from the relationship between UNHCR and the Egyptian government and will require an intense and concentrated campaign to convince the Egyptian authorities that developing a plan is in their own best interests. With this goal in mind I feel convinced that by removing Egypt's reservations to the articles concerning work, education, and public relief, Egypt would set itself firmly on the path towards doing its own Refugee Status Determination and fulfilling the objectives that were cited in the 1982 plan-but which have since been forgotten.

In practical terms Egypt's current reservations accomplish little-except perhaps perpetuating the fallacy that Egypt does not have a refugee problem because the government does so little to address it. But the truth is that Egypt if it is to handle future crises or potential greater flows of refugees it needs to develop some kind of legal framework or practice for refugees. To do otherwise not only risks ignoring the obligations of the 1951 convention but a serious future humanitarian crisis.


  • Abrishami, B. "A Day in the Life of an Asylum Seeker", CairoTimes, 14-20 February 2002
  • Afifi, W. "Field Report-Preliminary Investigation of education Opportunities for Refugee Children in Egypt" August 2003.
  • Azimi, N. "Winding Road to Four-and-a-Half", Al-Ahram Weekly, 27 June- 3 July, 2002, Issue 592: 5 pages.
  • Brown, N., Riordan, S., and Sharp, M. 'Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose-The Insecurity of Eritreans and Ethiopians in Cairo', August 2003 FMRS/AUC.
  • Digges, D., "Anywhere But Here." CairoTimes, No. 7-20 January 1999 pg. 13
  • Dingemans, E. 'Educational Needs and Priorities for South Sudanese Refugees in Cairo.' February 2002 (Field Report, FMRS/AUC)
  • Frechette, A. "Notes toward the Development of a Multi-Disciplinary Model for Comparative Research on Integration." Journal of Refugee Studies Sept. 16th 1999
  • Ghazaleh, P., "In Closed File Limbo: Displaced Sudanese in a Cairo Slum" Forced Migration Review, No. 16: 24-26
  • Kagan, M. "Note Regarding Refugees' Right to Work in Egypt Under International Law." Unpublished
  • Kuhlman, T. "Forced Migration: An Economist's Perspective"
  • Lindsey, U., "Roundup", CairoTimes 6-19 February 2003: 8-9
  • Mandel, J., "A Home from Home?" Egypt's Insight Magazine, April 1998.
  • No Author, "Withdrawal of Egypt's Reservations to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees." FMRS Legal Committee
  • Social Security Online, "Egypt"
  • Social Security Programs Throughout the World: Africa, 2003 - Egypt
  • Sperl, Stefan "Evaluation of UNHCR's Policies in Urban Areas: A Case study review of Cairo."
  • UNHCR, 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
  • Walker, Christopher "Subsidies Strike Back." CairoTimes April 2004
  • ZagiZig University, 'Rights and Duties of the Refugee in the Host Country and Their Application in Egyptian Legislation.' From Dr. Harrell-Bond. 1984


1. Sperl, Stefan pg. 2.

2. Adopted at the 18th Conference of Heads of State and Government. Entry into force 21 October 1986. Ratified by Egypt: 20 May 1984.

3. Article 53 of Egypt's 1971 Constitution provides the right to asylum 'for every foreigner persecuted for defending the peoples interest, human rights, peace or justice'.

4. Pascale Ghazaleh FMR pg. 25.

5. Presidential Decree No. 188 of the year 1984.

6. Rights and Duties of the Refugee in the Host Country and Their Application in Egyptian Legislation pg. 2.

7. Pascale Ghazaleh FMR pg. 26.

8. Lecture given on April 21st, 2004.

9. Brown, Riordan & Sharpe pg. 27.

10. Ms. Ana Liria-Franch, UNHCR Cairo Office Representative, Lecture, April 21st 2004.

11. Sperl, Stefan pg. 29.

12. World Press Review, Simon Apiku, April 21, 2003.

13. Week 5 World Press Review pf. 4.

14. Unpublished document, FMRS legal committee.

15. Brown, Riordan, and Sharp, Week 5 pg. 3.

16. Unpublished document, FMRS legal committee. Withdrawal of Egyptian Reservations to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees pg. 2 "reason cited for the reservations to articles 20 and 22 24 with regard of refugees versus nationals, 'to avoid any obstacle which might affect the discretionary authority of Egypt in granting privileges to refugees on a case-by-case basis' could be interpreted as discriminatory as regards race, national or social origin."

17. See Sperl, Stefan pg. 14.

18. Kuhlman, T. pg. 18.

19. Sperl, Stefan pg. 11.

20. Egypt's Insight Magazine April 1998 Josh Mandel.

21. UNHCR 1951 Convention.

22. Unpublished document, FMRS legal committee.

23. See Article 1(a)(2).

24. Cairo Times "Subsidies Strike Back" 8-15 April 2004.

25. Cairo Times "Subsidies Strike Back" 8-15 April 2004.

26. Ashraaf Azim lecture. "Community Development Approach" May 10th.

27. See Social Security Programs Throughout the World: Africa, 2003 - Egypt.

28. Kagan, Mike pg. 2.

29. Kagan, Mike pg. 2.

30. Sperl, Stefan pg. 3.

31. Egypt Insight Magazine April 1998.

32. Unpublished document, FMRS legal committee pg. 6.

33. See "A day in the life of an Asylum Seeker", Abrishami Week 5 last page.

34. See Sperl, Stefan pg. 17 for average incomes for household workers.

35. Afifi, Wesal, pg. 14.

36. Dingemans, pg. 11.

37. Afifi, Wesal, pg. 12.

38. Afifi, Wesal pg. 10.

39. See Dingemans, Esther pg. 12 for full details.

40. Afifi, Wesal pg. 10.

41. Afifi, Wesal pg. 18.

42. See Afifi, Wesal pg. 25 for an example of Somali family.

43. Egypt Insight, "A home from Home?" April 1998.

44. Afifi, Wesal pg. 12.

45. Unpublished document, FMRS legal committee., pg. 6.

46. This possibility was also noted by Sperl, "the charity (zakat) funds of major banks such as the Cairo branch of Faisal Bank." pg. 37.

47. Ms. Ana Liria-Franch, UNHCR Cairo Office Representative, Lecture April 21st 2004.

48. Sperl, Stefan pg. 11.

49. See Sperl, Stefan Appendices Table 3 for breakdown of refugee arrivals.

50. Ms. Ana Liria-Franch, UNHCR Cairo Office Representative, Lecture April 21st 2004.