Irregular migration in the Mediterranean may have halved Egypt’s dwindling community of Palestinian refugees from Syria
CAIRO - There were once approximately 6,000 Palestinians from Syria living in Egypt. Now there are between 3,000-4,000 left, according to various UN sources, effectively making Palestinian-Syrians the community in Egypt most impacted by irregular migration.
According to Chris Gunness, spokesman for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), there is “no comprehensive data available, but it is believed that there may be up to 4,000 Palestine refugees from Syria in Egypt.”
“We have a tiny office there and unless people come to us, we cannot directly confirm figures,” he added.
Another UN source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, suggested there may be less than 3,500 Palestinians from Syria currently in Egypt, based on a recent tally of refugees receiving World Food Programme (WFP) food voucher assistance.
Either way, the total number is likely to drop further as people continue to migrate. Many Palestinian-Syrian refugees in Egypt, facing economic uncertainty and restricted access to international protection, seem determined to get out.
Abu Ahmad lives in a tenement block on the very outskirts of 6th October City, itself a satellite town on the very outskirts of Cairo. Sudanese and Egyptian children play in the stairwell as Abu Ahmad climbs the stairs towards his apartment. Inside, damp has chipped away at the flaking walls. One of the bedrooms doesn’t look like it’s been used for some time.
Abu Ahmad’s second son, Ibrahim, is now in the process of applying for asylum in Germany after taking a boat from Egypt’s north coast a few weeks ago. It was his second attempt.
“We heard around by word-of-mouth that there was a smuggler [organising a trip] so we got his phone number and spoke to him,” he said. “A lot of young people are turning to him now.”
Before the Eid feast, Ibrahim was detained for three weeks in a police station in Kafr al-Sheikh governorate after police rumbled the trip at the beach.
“After Ibrahim’s release, he returned to the house here. It was the third day of Eid. On the fourth day, the smuggler called again and Ibrahim left.”
Abu Ahmad’s other son travelled a year ago, and now lives in Denmark. Like many Palestinian refugees from Syria who came to Egypt after 2011, Abu Ahmad feels there are next to no options left open to his family.
“[Ibrahim] didn’t have anything else to resort to but irregular migration,” he told Middle East Eye. “Every other option was blocked.”
“Some people managed to travel, the others are dead,” Abu Ahmad said, smiling at his grim logic. “If someone dies, they’re more comfortable, at least. If he makes it to the other side, he’s survived. It’s an adventure, isn’t it?”
In another time, Abu Ahmad raised a family in Yarmouk camp, for some the beating heart of the Palestinian diaspora. All that has gone now. Once a construction contractor in Syria, he now drives a microbus from dawn until 6pm each day.
“Twenty years of work … and for what?” Abu Ahmad asks. “Dust.” He acts it out, blowing the invisible particles out of the palm of his hand.
Now Abu Ahmad hopes he will be able to reach Europe, with the remainder of his family, through family reunification via one of his two sons.
Zeid, also from Yarmouk, once worked as a furniture trader but fled to Egypt in the spring 2013 when the situation in the camp continued to deteriorate. Receiving WFP food voucher assistance that he says is not enough, and working as a house decorator informally on the side, Zeid too is now thinking about trying to reach Europe.
“Every one of us is thinking about not staying here, but it depends on the money we have,” Zeid said, before adding that he does not currently have the means to go to Europe. “I have [Palestinian] friends and relatives who arrived in Egypt both before and after me, and I’d say 90 percent of them have left now.”
Why are Palestinian refugees from Syria now living in Egypt so intent on leaving? The root cause can be found in international law.
According to Article 1(D) of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the provisions of the convention “shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance.”
This was a clause generally understood to be based on the participation of Arab states - including Egypt - in the convention’s drafting. Arab states wanted to preserve a special, privileged place in international law for the refugees of the 1948 Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) so that they would not be “relegated to a position of minor importance,” according to Saudi Arabia’s delegate at the drafting meetings.
Article 1(D) goes on to add that “when such protection or assistance has ceased for any reason, without the position of such persons being definitively settled in accordance with the relevant resolutions adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, these persons shall ipso facto be entitled to the benefits of this Convention.”
These two exclusion-inclusion clauses effectively mean that if a Palestinian refugee leaves an area of UNRWA operation, like Syria, and stops receiving assistance, they should then theoretically fall under the mandate of UNHCR.
UNHCR’s authoritative interpretation of Article 1(D) therefore states that Palestinian refugees in Egypt would come under its mandate.
Although Egypt is not one of UNRWA’s five official areas of operation - namely Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories (Gaza and the West Bank) - Egypt’s foreign ministry has previously claimed that the government is protecting Palestinian refugees’ right of return by not giving them access to UNHCR. This is largely because registered status with the organisation effectively gives refugees the option of resettlement; away from the third country where they sought refuge, but also away from their homeland, away from Palestine.
Salim Salamah, head of the Palestinian League for Human Rights (PLHR) and himself a former resident of Yarmouk camp now living in Europe, argues that more needs to be done to provide sustainable living conditions for refugees, rather than talking in meta-narratives and political positions about the right of return.
“First and foremost, we need to preserve the lives of people before talking about the right of return because, without them, there is no right of return,” he argued. “Those refugees, the descendants of 1948 refugees, are the backbone of the right of return.”
Salamah believes that exclusion from UNCHR’s mandate and the ensuing lack of protection is perhaps the “main vulnerability” for Palestinian-Syrians who have fled Syria. “And this lack of international protection is not only about instant protection, but also about having a sustainable livelihood and the capacity to acquire the minimum necessities of life.”
“Being outside that arena of international protection,” Salamah added, “we’re totally exposed”.
Zeid similarly argues that governments should be more focused on providing a “good life” for Palestinian refugees - something that might actually curb the number of people turning to irregular migration.
“If you refuse to give Palestinian refugees the right to resettlement or to travel outside, if you don’t offer that to them, you should provide them with a good life so they stay in Egypt,” he said. “But in general, Arab countries don’t provide this good life, this need, for Palestinian refugees.”
UNRWA’s Gunness meanwhile admits that, for Palestinian refugees themselves, one of the “main concerns in protection terms [relates] to their status and fears of being deported. This is similar to concerns in other countries, like Jordan and Lebanon.” Human rights organisations have documented both countries either deporting Palestinian-Syrians back to Syria - in clear violation of the principle of refoulement, a cornerstone of UNHCR’s Refugee Convention - or refusing them entry at the border.
Non-refoulement means not returning refugees to an origin country where they may reasonably expect to face persecution or harm to their life or freedom. Syria is a textbook case.
Currently, two Palestinian-Syrians - Fady, 54, and his 24-year-old nephew Alaa - have been detained in Egypt for almost a year.
Originally detained last year and transferred to Qanater Foreigners’ Prison, the Egyptian government then tried to deport Fady and Alaa to the Gaza Strip but they were refused at the border. Since then, the two men have remained in a police station in Arish, North Sinai.
The UN and Palestinian Consulate in Cairo are said to be trying to organise their transfer back from Sinai, made difficult by the increasingly fraught security situation on the peninsula.
Abdullah and Omar, two brothers from Yarmouk, are also approaching one year in detention in Alexandria’s Karmouz police station after they were caught trying to reach Europe last September. Resettlement procedures to a European country are underway, but appear to be taking a long time.
The prospects for Egypt’s dwindling Palestinian-Syrian community are not all that bright, and present challenges not only for international organisations and governments, but arguably also the long-held beliefs about the Palestinian right of return.
Zeid, for example, remains frank and pragmatic about what it means to be a Palestinian refugee in Egypt, and what he plans to do about it.
“From my point of view, I don’t want to stay anymore,” he said. “The right of return doesn’t mean anything for me now because I know I will get a better life outside.”