'Criminalization and Exclusion'
The case of Syrian and Palestinian Refugees in Egypt
Last week, over 50 refugee-detainees in Alexandria's Karmooz police station announced they were starting a hunger strike. The majority of those held at the Karmooz police station were arrested in early November by Egyptian coast guards. The group had left from Turkey by boat on 23 October aiming to reach Europe. Following a dispute between the smugglers, the refugees were left stranded on Nelson Island, 4 km north of Abu Qir, Alexandria. The Center for Refugee Solidarity reported on the incident here.
The prolonged detention of refugees in Egypt points out two pressing problems in Egypt's asylum policy:
The practice of criminalizing refugee movements to Egypt
The protection gap Palestinian refugees face in Egypt
The criminalization of refugee movements to Egypt
In the last one and a half years, the arbitrary detention of refugees has increased immensely. According to Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), 7.328 refugees have been detained in the country since August 2013.
The increase in arbitrary detention of Syrian and Palestinian refugees in particular is a result of a shift in Egypt's foreign policy on Syria amid growing anti-Syrian sentiment in the country since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
The very tight visa restrictions in place for Syrians make it virtually impossible for refugees from Syria to obtain a visa prior to their arrival and to enter Egypt officially. Hence, they are at an immense risk of arrest and deportation. As Egypt is lacking specific facilities for migrants and refugees, Syrian and Palestinian refugees have been held at various facilities, such as police stations, military camps, schools, and most recently a youth center. These facilities are often lacking in the most basic sanitary infrastructure and are inadequate to facilitate the administrative detention of hundreds of refugees.
Referring to the hunger strikers, Tarek Wafa, Head of the public relations department at Alexandria Security Department stated in an interview with Al Ahram, that the Karmooz detainees are infiltrators, and not official refugees, who entered the country in an illegal manner.
According to Egypt's Law on Entry and Residence of Aliens in the Territories of the United Arab Republic and their Departure (1960), non-citizens can be subject to both criminal penalties and administrative detention for unauthorized entry or residence. There is no maximum length of administrative detention in Egyptian Law. In his statement, Wafa implies that due to their 'illegal' entry, they have in fact lost their 'legal' status as refugees, and are therefore treated as criminals who tried to sneak into the country. Hence, the Egyptian state denies refugees who entered the country 'unauthorized' any right to seek asylum as it does not differentiate between refugees and economic migrants in the application of its 1960 Law on Entry and Residence.
In the particular case of the refugees currently detained at Karmooz police station, one however has to question whether they can be found guilty of unauthorized entry in the first place. These refugees have been picked up and arrested by Egyptian coast guards after being abandoned by smugglers. Therefore, these refugees are victims of smuggling rather than 'active' migrants trying to enter the country unauthorized.
The Exclusion of Palestinian refugees in Egypt
In cases of arbitrary detention, UNHCR - mandated with the protection of refugees in the country – would be the agency to support the refugees' legal claims. However, currently the majority of those detained by Egyptian authorities are Palestinian refugees who lived in Syria. While Syrians in Egypt are registered with and receive protection through the office of UNHCR, Palestinian refugees are denied this protection. UNHCR's ability to register Palestinians is constrained by a longstanding Egyptian policy to not acknowledge and accept Palestinians as refugees. The protection gap faced by Palestinian refugees in Egypt results in denied access to many basic services, including health, education, employment, as well as in a high vulnerability towards the arbitrariness of the Egyptian state's policies, such as deportation orders.
While Egypt is signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, domestic asylum procedures are not yet in place. Therefore, the UNHCR carries out the registration and the status determination of refugees on behalf of the Egyptian state. Nevertheless, when registering refugees, UNHCR is still bound by Egypt's national policies. Egypt's policies towards Palestinian refugees has been subject to drastic changes in the past sixty years. Shifting with Egypt's nationalism, those policies have gone from granting Palestinians equal rights under the pan-Arabist period of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-1970) to the loss of all privileges as a result of the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal in 1978 and a new found nationalism, under Anwar El- Sadat (1970-1981). During the Mubarak era and the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, those policies were not revised. Palestinians are usually granted a one-week entry visa, without any possibility to register as a refugee with the UNHCR in Egypt.
Although both, Syrian nationals as well as Palestinian-Syrians, have experienced a rise in arbitrary detention and deportations in the last year in Egypt, Syrian nationals still - at least formally - have access to UNHCR's protection and assistance, while Palestinians find themselves in an institutional and legal vacuum.