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Different Policies, the Same Game: Syrian and Palestinian Refugees in Egypt

[10 October 2013, protestor in front of the Alexandrian Library carrying a sign reading “Egyptian dignity of Syrian dignity.” Image originally posted to Refugee Solidarity Movement's Facebook page.] [10 October 2013, protestor in front of the Alexandrian Library carrying a sign reading “Egyptian dignity of Syrian dignity.” Image originally posted to Refugee Solidarity Movement's Facebook page.]

Past Treatment of Refugees in Egypt

Continuing conflict in the Middle East and North Africa over the past decade has caused a sudden, periodic rise in the number of first Iraqi, then Libyan, and most recently Syrian refugees to Egypt. However, the predominant refugee groups in the country since the 1990s have been from the Horn of Africa. Many groups of African refugees–from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan–have resided in Egypt on a semi-permanent basis over the past two decades. Because global policies toward refugees operate on the assumption that refugees will eventually return to their home countries once conditions improve, there are few structures in place to accommodate refugees who find themselves lingering in so-called “transit” countries like Egypt.

The Egyptian government’s engagement with its refugee populations can be described as a general ambivalence, punctuated by incidences of engagement driven by distributive interest, i.e. engagement with certain refugee populations when doing so is perceived as politically advantageous. In the case of African refugees, these incidences of engagement are almost wholly negative. One of the most extreme examples is the massacre of twenty-six Sudanese refugees who were killed by Egyptian security forces after refusing to disband a protest outside the UNHCR offices in the upper-class Cairo neighborhood of Mohandiseen in 2006. The Egyptian state will also periodically deport politically active African refugees if it considers them a threat to state security, in violation of the international legal norm of non-refoulement, or forced deportation.

Syrians: Before and After Egypt’s Coup

The case of Syrian refugees in Egypt demonstrates this theory of distributive interest more succinctly. According to a November 2013 Human Rights Watch report, three hundred thousand Syrians are currently in Egypt, 125,000 of whom the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered. When Syrians began arriving en mass in 2012, former President Mohamed Morsi extended a relatively “warm” reception to Syrian refugees, in comparison to the country’s longer-standing population of Africans. For example, Morsi announced in September of 2012 that all Syrian refugee children residing in Egypt would be able to enroll in public schools regardless of their UNHCR status, a service not extended to all refugee groups. If we assume that Egypt’s modus operandi is one of ambivalence toward refugees, then this recognition and willingness to offer services to Syrian children represents an anomalous break.

It seems plausible to think that this demonstrated preference for Syrian as opposed to African refugees is related to the pervasive idea of a common Arab lineage, and support on behalf of the Egyptian populace for co-ethnic or co-religious refugees. Such thinking correlates with the fact that the acquisition of nationality in the Arab world is generally easier for those who present some ethnic or religious affinity with the host country. Legislation in most Arab states also provides special naturalization rules for nationals of other Arab countries (co-ethnic preference) and also some for foreign Muslims (co-religious preference).

Yet former President Mohamed Morsi’s rhetoric regarding Syria points more to an Islamic and sectarian ideology than one based on co-ethnic affinities. As clearly demonstrated just prior to his ousting, Morsi supported Syrian oppositional forces to the point of cutting diplomatic ties with the Bashar al-Assad government. On 15 June 2013, two weeks before the military coup, Morsi announced at a mass rally in Cairo that he would be closing the Syrian embassy in Egypt and that, "the Egyptian people and army are supporting the Syrian uprising.” Hardliners also spoke at the rally, calling for jihad to combat the Syrian regime. Vocalizing support for Syrians was therefore a means of bolstering Morsi’s own support among Islamic factions within Egypt.

Following the military coup on 3 July 2013, Syrian refugees would again be used by political leaders, but in a very different fashion. While technically the special treatment–healthcare and access to primary education–extended to Syrian refugees under former President Mohamed Morsi was upheld by the subsequent military government, the de facto treatment changed dramatically. Syrian refugees became the subjects of a government-organized media campaign that refers to them as “terrorists’” who are allied with the Muslim Brotherhood and former President Mohamed Morsi’s supporters. These accusations were fueled by the arrest of a Syrian national at a rally in support of the ousted president on 5 July, solidifying the association between the Muslim Brotherhood and Syrians in the minds of many Egyptians.

Three days after this incident, on 8 July, the new military-led government modified its entry rules pertaining to Syrians. Whereas before these changes there were no visa restrictions on Syrians entering Egypt, refugees from Syria would now need to obtain a visa and security clearance before their departure. The new system was applied on the same day that it was announced, and ninety-five Syrians were sent back to Syria on a flight to Latakia. Egyptian authorities originally claimed that the new restrictions would only be a temporary measure until security conditions improved, but the changes were not reversed.

As a result of these policies and the increasingly hostile treatment of Syrians within Egypt, Amnesty International has documented a particularly sharp increase in the number of Syrian refugees in Egypt attempting to escape to Europe. Between January and the end of August 2013 an estimated six thousand Syrian refugees managed to reach Italy by boat from Egypt, but between September and mid-October–just one and a half months–over three thousand Syrians arrived in Italy from Egypt. Human Rights Watch has also documented over 1,500 cases of prolonged detainment of Syrian refugees in the last few months, as well as hundreds of cases of coerced refoulement, or forced return to Syria.

A Special Case: Palestinian Refugees From Syria

The situation is further complicated by the fact that many of the “Syrian” refugees to Egypt are in fact Palestinians, or Palestinian Refugees from Syria (PRS). According to Human Rights Watch, the Palestinian Embassy in Cairo has registered 6,834 Palestinian Refugees from Syria who arrived in Egypt between December 2012 and 31 October 2013. Some of these individuals were born in Syria and have never lived in Palestine, but they are legally treated as Palestinians both within Syria and once they have fled to a third country. As Palestinian Refugees from Syria residing in Egypt they are not only stateless, but are also without any international body to assist them. The UNHCR is unable to formally register them as they fall under the purview of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)–a body that specifically registers and provides services to Palestinians, and which does not operate in Egypt.

As the November Human Rights Watch report explains, Egyptian authorities refuse to allow the UNHCR to register Palestinian Refugees from Syria, citing article 1D of the Refugee Convention, which excludes these individuals from the UNHCR’s mandate in areas where the UNRWA provides services, such as in Syria. While Palestinian Refugees from Syria should fall under UNHCR’s protection mandate because the UNRWA does not operate in Egypt, the Egyptian government will not allow the UNHCR to register and provide services to them.

The unwillingness to help Palestinian Refugees from Syria may be related to the presumed Hamas-Muslim Brotherhood connection, or what has been made of it in Egypt following July’s military coup. This alleged connection has been used by the military leadership as a platform for accusing former President Mohamed Morsi of having transnational rather than national loyalties, and one of the criminal charges he now faces is collaboration with Hamas.

The New Security State

The goal of this article is not to portray Syrian and Palestinian Refugees from Syria as mere pawns in Egypt’s power struggles. In many cases Syrians and Palestinians residing in Egypt have self-organized and become self-sufficient in the absence of any substantial government or UNHCR aid. Refugees have also found Egyptian allies in existing human rights organizations like the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) as well as recently formed groups that specifically address their plight. For example, the Refugees Solidarity Movement is a political group dedicated to ending the abuses and forced deportations of Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Egypt.

While it is important not to cast Syrian and Palestinian refugees as actors without any agency, there is also some validity to the way they have recently been portrayed by journalists: individuals fleeing a political crisis in one country, only to be unfairly caught up in another country’s turmoil. Nader G. Attar, one of the co-founders of the Refugees Solidarity Movement, explained in an interview on 4 January 2014 in Cairo that Syrians and Palestinian Refugees from Syria have become an “easy target” through which the new government can bolster its security state. Attar reasons that in order for the military-led government to legitimize its rule, it must create a heightened sense of fear among citizens. Syrian and Palestinian Refugees from Syria have thus joined the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, anti-coup protestors and other revolutionary activists that the state has labeled as “security threats” in order to expand its policing apparatus over the past several months.

Further exemplifying this, Nader G. Attar himself has been repeatedly harassed by members of Egyptian state intelligence due to his role with refugee activism. And through not specifically related to her activities with refugees, the movement’s other co-founder, Mahienour El-Massry, was sentenced on 2 January 2014 to two years in prison, together with four other activists from Alexandria, Egypt, for their participation in a stand for Khaled Said.


Ultimately, both former President Mohamed Morsi and the military leadership’s treatment of Syrian and Palestinian Refugees from Syria underscore how policies toward refugees are often formulated for the purposes of political gain. Under Morsi, policies toward Syrian and Palestinian refugees were used to garner further support among Islamic factions in Egypt by demonstrating an affinity with revolutionary groups in Syria. Under the post-coup leadership, abusive policies toward Syrians and Palestinians, disguised as state security measures, are being used to sustain an existing climate of fear toward outsiders–refugees, anticoup protestors, and dissenting voices–in order to legitimize the actions of the military. Egypt is not alone in its use of refugees for political gain, but it may be unique in that the same group of refugees has been used twice by seemingly opposing regimes in the short span of one year. 

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