On Friday, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling on EU leaders to ‘live up to their responsibilities, consistent with their international responsibilities… in accordance with the principles of international humanitarian law’ with regards to the unprecedented influx of refugees.
In the wake of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s damning comments on the EU’s reception of refugees and asylum-seekers, we decided to examine Egypt’s own convoluted history of hosting displaced peoples, with a question in mind: Are we in any position to be criticising other governments?
The History of Refugees in Egypt
Egypt is an official signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention and its amended 1967 Protocol. In spite of this, according to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), Egypt has yet to develop national asylum procedures, leaving the UNHCR with the exclusive responsibility for the registration, documentation, and status determination of refugees. As well as with the responsibility for providing public services.
As Egypt struggles with its own political, social, and economic challenges, refugees often fall by the wayside – with the government’s inability or unwillingness to provide adequate public services and protection for its asylum-seekers, most notably in preventing refugee children from attending public schools.
Egypt’s geographic proximity to conflict-zones in Africa and the Middle East, as well as to Europe, makes it the perfect destination for refugees, particularly for those for whom Egypt is not the ‘final destination’.
Our internal and legislative challenges have not stopped Egypt from being a home to hundreds of thousands of refugees – hailing from Syria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Palestine, Iraq, and various other nations.
Refugee Numbers in Egypt
In 2014 alone, the UNHCR reported 267,820 registered refugees living in Egypt, although Refuge Egypt (an NGO working on refugee rights) estimates that the number of refugees in Egypt is closer to 2 million. Over the past 30 years, asylum-seekers in Egypt have increased exponentially, typically coinciding with conflict and wars in their home-countries – most notably, in the instances of the Iraq, Libyan, Sudanese, and Syrian wars.
After the American invasion of Iraq, Egypt became a popular destination for Iraqi refugees – with an estimated number of 100,000 to 150,000 resettling in Egypt. Similarly, since 2011, Egypt has become home to 132,375 refugees from Syria, according to Amnesty International statistics. Egypt is also the home of 140,000 Libyan refugees. We have significantly fewer Sudanese refugees, according to official statistics, with an estimated number of 15,000 who have resettled in Egypt.
The Legal Standing of Refugees in Egypt
From a legislative and legal point of view, refugees have very few rights. Even though the Refugee Convention was adopted as ‘Domestic Law’ by Presidential Decree in 1980, Egyptian law prevents foreign persons from owning any kind of property or land in Egypt (with the exception of Palestinian refugees), and prohibits the children of foreigners (even those born on Egyptian soil) from acquiring the nationality, as the Egyptian nationality is predicated on descent.
In issuing residence permits for refugees, the Egyptian Government severely restricts refugees’ ability to support themselves economically through legal means – by refusing to disclose (on the residence permits) whether ‘Work is Permitted’ or not, which hinders the employment-seeking process.
One cannot deny Egypt’s role in resettling displaced peoples. Whether by accident or by design, Egypt houses a large number of refugees, housing the fifth largest urban refugee population in the world.
Having said this, it also has to be noted that the current ‘state of affairs’ is not sustainable. Unless all the wars in neighbouring countries stop at once, the influx of refugees is only going to increase.
The UNHCR, tasked with the exclusive responsibility of providing services for/registering refugees, cannot sustain the predicted influx, with refugee cases having been back-logged for years. Without administrative, legal, and personnel support from the Egyptian Government, the UNHCR’s system will be unable to cope.
Although, as has been previously stated, Egypt houses the fifth largest urban refugee population globally, this doesn’t mean much. In terms of percentages, asylum-seekers represent approximately 2.17% of the Egyptian population (compared to Lebanon’s 20%).
So… is our Foreign Ministry in any position to be criticising other governments? Going purely on our institutionalised maltreatment of refugees, the legal standing of asylum-seekers (or lack thereof), and the Egyptian Government’s unwillingness to provide adequate services to refugees – as well as to the majority of its own population – the Foreign Ministry’s comments appear to be hypocritical.
Although international law principles are neither mandatory nor enforceable, citing said principles as a foundation for criticism is only applicable if we, ourselves, are conducting our affairs in accordance with these humanitarian principles.