Eritrean refugees in Egypt are more vulnerable than refugees of other nationalities

 2 August 2018

The most common problems facing Eritrean refugees in Egypt is lack of adequate protection and access to residency visa. These are key problems for the very survival of the refugees and need adequate attention and tackling.

On July 3, 2018, a young child was stabbed five times by a knife by Egyptian criminals. His name is Ibrahim (not real name). He was born on January 1, 2001. He lives in al-harem Giza with his mother. He was treated in Al-harem - Giza hospital. Until now his attackers have not been arrested and brought to justice.

On July 11, a 27 years old Eritrean woman named Rahma (not real name), was arrested when she was working with an Egyptian families in Cairo, Nasr City. The court proved her innocence and released her. After her release the police arrested her again on false charges that she did not renew her residency. She was released again after a weeklong detention up on the intervention the UNHCR in Egypt.

On July 13, Senay (not real name) died on his way back to Sudan died after he got frustrated with the UNHCR asylum granting process in Egypt.

Senay came to Cairo towards the end of 2016 and immediately applied for asylum. Following his application, he provided him with yellow card (asylum seeker) in the beginning of 2017 and after one year from his registration, he was interviewed for the RSD (result status determination). While he was waiting for the RSD result, he received a message from the UNHCR that he was going to sit for  a complementary additional interview and the time for the additional interview still was not fixed. 

Such attacks are happening to many refugees, especially Eritreans. As the head of RSD unit (Florentine) said that they need additional information for some cases in order to help them to be determine the results. According to the officer 10 to 12% of applicants are required to do the complementary additional interview. But due to the work load it takes at least 1 year to do the complementary additional interview. This much delays and the uncertainty about the outcome of the asylum application frustrated Senay and caused him to decide to go back to Sudan. Initially Senay crossed into Egypt from Sudan. And in the process of back and forth, he lost his life.  

On July 15, an Egyptian gang stabbed a 19 years old Eritrean young man (name withheld)  with a knife on his hand and beat him on the). The perpetrators have not been brought to the court of law and the police refused to cooperate and issue him a police report/letter that he needed it deliver it to UNHCR protection department. Moreover, he was demanded by the doctor to pay more money to get the medical report and he paid 300 Egyptian pounds. As the documents from the police and doctors are requirements for UNHCR to intervene and help in covering the medical expenses, he was unable to get the necessary support for medication.

On July 24, 2018, two Eritrean Asylum seekers (One of them underage), Dawit (not his real name) - 17 years old and Fanus (not his real name), were arrested by police from the immigration office while they were in queue for renewal of their residence permit. Not only it is difficult to get residence permit but also everyone is required to swing back and forth and stay there for long period to get it. That's why the two boys had come for their second day to stay there the whole day and night to catch up the queue. There were two Syrian and one Sudanese nationals arrested with them at the time. But the Syrian had been released while the Eritreans and the Sudanese still remain in detention.

In this context, the Eritrean refugees took part in two demonstrations in front of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in a short interval of less than four months. The first demonstrations took place on April 6, 2018 and the demands of the first demonstration have yet been met. They staged another demonstration on July 22, 2018. This time they were courting for several days in front of the Commission, but the Egyptian security force came with all their might to prevent the demonstrators from moving towards the UNHCR Office.

The demonstration began at 8:00 am and about 1,200 people participated in this demonstration while in the first demonstration about 1750 people participated. At 10 am, one of the employees from the UNHCR Protection Department named Hussien (Egyptian nationality) came out to the demonstrators. He discussed with four members of the Eritrean refugee committee: Tsefit (chairman), Akram (vice chairman), Waleed (member), and Rizvan (member), who raised the issues for which they came. The most prominent problems discussed were the questions of protection, education and racism facing the Eritreans compared to the Syrians, the Yemenis and the Sudanese, as refugees of these nationalities benefit more from the services provided by the UNHCR.

After a two-hours discussion, he promised them that they would hold a special meeting with the Eritrean refugees' committee and representatives of the Eritrean community to listen to their questions and problems. After the discussion, the committee persuaded the demonstrators to return to their homes after briefing them about the outcomes of the discussions with the UNHCR representative.

The following day, July 23, 2018, the UNHCR representative contacted the Refugee Committee and set a date and time for their joint meetings (1 August 2018) and the number of attendees to the meeting. The meeting will be conducted on the 1st of August 2018 and 20 people from the Eritrean refugee community will attend the meeting.

The meeting was conducted on the scheduled date, i.e. on the 1st of August 2018. The meeting was attended from the UNHCR side by Mrs. Amey, the vice representative of the UNHCR office in Egypt, Ms. Florentina, Head of the RSD unit, and Mr. Sharif, Head of protection unit and from the Eritrean side by the representatives of the community. The meeting provided the Eritrean refugee community representatives the platform to raise and discuss the problems and issues by Eritreans refugees and asylum seekers.

In the meetings the Eritrean refugee community representatives expressed their  dissatisfaction with the previous meeting saying claiming that they have already got briefings by their community leader about the issues that have been discussing with UNHCR and all the developments happened. After the peaceful mass demonstration in May, 2018 and up on the responses delivered, their committee has sent a letter of complaint via e-mail to UNHCR. However, the committee didn’t get any confirmation of the receipt of the e-mail let alone to get appropriate answer to the letter. Consequently the recent peaceful mass demonstration had been done again with the notion that their concerns get the necessary attention. In all forms possible, what they expressed their views through the demonstrations they wanted to deliver the message that their people are dying everywhere particularly in the deserts and seas and as the result of the unbearable conditions some people are losing their minds, others are becoming homeless, many minors are becoming drug addict, child sex abuses have become common, children are suffering from malnutrition due to starvation, children are out of school  and that the consequences of the frustration are as many as it could be imagined.

They made it clear that they will not have new questions to be raised that meeting as already the problems and challenges had been communicated and demands made and that UNHCR is fully aware of our issues to be addressed. Hence in this meeting they demanded UNHCR to take immediate and concrete actions to address the problems and challenges already raised. And they warned the UNHCR officers that if they had come with the same approach as it was with previous meetings, that none of them would be encouraged to come and attend similar meeting. They insisted that UNHCR should deliver otherwise people are getting frustrated and losing faith on UNHCR.

Questions raised regarding to Registration and RSD processes and delays and the answers given were that shortage of officers/staffs and interpreters are the cause for the delays.

There were questions regarding to resettlement delays. The answers given were the cutting of the number of refugees that USA is receiving.

With regards to the unfairness of the Social welfare distribution – where children of both parents are denied to benefit from the limited resources regardless of the family size because at least one of their parents is not absent, which is very sad was mentioned as an example – The ultimate answer provided was that the office distributes its resources for the most vulnerable though there was no clarity as to what parameters it uses to identify the most vulnerable ones. As to the Protection aspect which comprises both physical safety and other basic human rights issues, there was no much discussion made apart from the misconception exhibited by the UHHCR officers that the Eritrean refugees’ cases are the same as that of refugees of other nationalities.

The refugee representatives said:

 therefore today we are here together to reach  a consensus with you that the UNHCR has to use its moral and legal obligations to protect us and safeguard our fundamental human rights by moving forward extra mile to bring us sustainable solution.

 We believe that strong and collective actions are required to accomplish the pending tasks to avoid the sad situation stated earlier. Apart from the previously mentioned problems, the most concerning and alarming issue is that the inaccessibility of our children to basic Education and adults to work. International protection comprises more than physical safety.

Refugees should have access to schooling and the right to work. The UNHCR must direct its efforts towards relieving the plight of the Eritrean refugee Children living in a state of uncertainty.

The refugees’ representatives reminded the UNHCR officers of the rights refugees hold and duties the UNHCR bears to protect and support refugees and asylum seekers.

They also reminded the UNCHR officers that Eritreans have good culture of relying on themselves and cooperating with others. They expressed their frustration to be in such a a situation whereby they waste their time in queue to get assistance from humanitarian organizations rather than spending in productive activities.

The representative of the UNHCR after they listened to their problems they told them about the shortage they have and the pressure they face from the Egyptian government. But in the subject of education and security they stated that it’s the right of the refugees to get education and that UNHCR will make sure to pay school fee for every refugee child who is in need of schooling.

Mrs. Florentina from RSD department highlighted that she is not the decision maker. According to her there is cases are reviewed and by other staff members.

Regarding protection and emergency services, Mr. AShraf replied that they have a contract with hospitals to provide health services. In addition SAVE THE CHILDREN is providing emergency services to refugee children.

Finally there was hope and satisfaction on the faces of the Eritrean community representatives, because the UNHCR side gave them a chance to deliver their messages. The UNHCR representative advised the Eritrean refugees’ representatives not to organize further demonstrations expressing that the Egyptian government has banned demonstrations and that the consequences could be grave.