The Arab spring has given hope to millions of people in the Middle East, for the end of dictatorship and corruption. But at the same time, as revolution brings with it increased insecurity and lawlessness, those at the fringes of society suffer. In Egypt, a transit country for refugees moving from Sudan and Sub-Saharan Africa, the migrants are among those who have paid a high price for the revolution.
The country has one of the biggest refugee populations in the world, with estimates from half a million to three million. Aside from the granting of asylum – where refugees are given the right not to be deported – Egypt has opted out of the rest of the responsibilities, such as health care, right to education and employment, of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Among those working to improve the rights of refugees in Egypt is Eirwen Jane-Pierrot. She is a legal advisor specialized in human rights law, working for the NGO “Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance” (AMERA-Egypt). She helps refugees coming to Egypt from the Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia and she believes that even though the situation has always been dire for refugees, the revolution of last year has increased the risks they are facing. She points out however, that none of the recent disturbances have been directly aimed at this group of people. “In terms of practice, although there has been a lot of turbulence, none of this has directly affected refugees. The government has not opted out of any agreements, no laws that affect refugees have been changed.”
The UNHCR provides refugees within Egypt with only a very limited amount of health care, while they are not allowed access to formal education in the state schools. In contrast, although developed countries’ treatment of asylum seekers is far from ideal, they still undertake to provide them with a number of basic necessities, such as right to employment, education and healthcare. This arrangement is not unusual however. Alot of developing countries lack the capacity to provide any kind of benefits for the refugees and essentially their governments outsource their responsibilities to the UN. For the refugees however, they are stuck in a place where they have little chance of improving their lot. “There is no future for them here, no work and no school. So alot of them decide to cross the Sinai and try to get into Israel,” says Eirwen Jane-Pierrot.
Since the break-out of the revolution, the Sinai peninsula has drifted towards lawlessness. Arms smuggling is increasing and recently there were reports about illegal migrants and refugees being trafficked across the peninsula, some even killed and having their organs transplanted. Egyptian guards on the Egypt-Israeli border, have a policy of shoot-to-stop, which has led to deaths and fatal injuries. Yet the problems have increased for those refugees who have chosen to stay as well. With increasing protests and insecurity, a large number of checkpoints have been erected all over Cairo and other cities. This poses great difficulties for refugees, even if they stay in the country illegally or not.
Alot of the police officers are not aware of the rights of an asylum seeker and do not recognize the ID cards they are issued with from the UN. Therefore a large number of both illegal and legal refugees end up in jail. “I currently have one client who had received his refugee ID, who was stopped by the police. He showed the policeman his card, but because he has not yet received his residence permit, he was sent to jail and we are currently having a great deal of difficulty to get him out of there”, says Eirwen Jane-Pierrot. Egypt has long been criticized for jailing refugees, treating them like criminals instead of displaced persons. In this respect, the revolution proved to be a mixed blessing. During the tumultuous events of 2011 with its epicenter at Tahrir square, prisons were broken into and immigrants and refugees were freed – as well as more serious criminals.
Organisations working for improving the lot of asylum seekers within Egypt are facing serious problems. Since it is so difficult to go through the entire process of registration, many human rights NGO:s lack a registration permit. Therefore many of them operate in the country without official permission. This means in effect that NGO:s receiving foreign funding are at constant risk of being shut down or having their offices raided. Recently AMERA-Egypt has been forced to close its offices. “In a year about 20% of people claiming asylum at UNHCR come to our office for help. They can still claim asylum at UNHCR, but there is an obvious benefit from getting help by our NGO,” says Eirwen Jane-Pierrot.
When asked about her opinion for the future of refugees in Egypt, she does not believe that there will be a lot of change in the situation, no matter which faction dominates the new parliament. Neither will the situation become worse. Liberal, conservative or islamist, it is unlikely that the government will withdraw from the 1951 conventions. “I dont see a right wing majority government making any positive changes for the refugees in this country either. And even if as time goes on the liberal parties become an effective opposition, refugees are hardly the priority in the interim. The priority is getting the streets safe again and getting the economy back. The situation is going to stay largely the same in politics and in law.”