Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2018, 13:56 GMT

World Refugee Survey 2009 - Egypt

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 17 June 2009
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, World Refugee Survey 2009 - Egypt, 17 June 2009, available at: [accessed 16 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Egypt figures


Egypt hosted some 122,400 refugees and asylum seekers, including some 70,000 Palestinians, over 23,000 Sudanese, and nearly 20,000 Iraqis. Some 42,500 of these, more than half of them Sudanese, registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since 2006, over 13,000 African migrants, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, have entered Israel through Egypt.

2008 Summary

During 2008, Egyptian border police killed as many as 33 African migrants attempting to enter Israel. The Government did not prosecute any of the shooters nor did it investigate any of the killings in 2007 of refugees near the border. Authorities arrested and detained more than 1,300 Africans attempting to cross the border, trying them in military courts and often imposing one-year sentences followed by deportation.

Throughout 2008, Egypt detained over 200 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR. After UNHCR intervention, Egypt released most of them without charging them. Egypt allowed UNHCR to register 118 detained refugees. Egypt detained an unknown number of unregistered refugees, which requested UNHCR registration during their detention.

In January, following a break in the Gaza-Egypt border wall, Egyptian authorities attempted to force over 1,000 Palestinians in the Sinai region of Egypt back into Gaza.

In February, Egyptian border guards shot and killed an Eritrean woman attempting to cross into Israel near the Aouja crossing point. Guards chased the woman, who attempted to jump the barbed-wire border marking. Guards opened fire and killed her with a shot to the head. They also arrested her two daughters, aged 8 and 10. Later in February, border police shot and wounded one Sudanese and one from the Ivory Coast, in separate incidents.

In March, police forces arrested 70 Eritreans in the south, near Sudan, subjected them to medical examinations, and announced plans to refer them to a "special court."

In April, authorities deported 30 Sudanese, including 11 whom UNHCR had recognized as refugees and one 17-year old Canada had accepted for resettlement. Authorities accused them of participating in gang violence in February but deported them before their hearing, scheduled for May.

By May, Egypt held at least 400 Eritreans in prisons around the country.

In June, Egypt forcibly returned nearly 200 Eritreans despite UNHCR guidelines against the forcible return of Eritreans. The Government also denied UNHCR access to them in a security forces camp in Aswan and reportedly beat them to force them to sign travel documents. Guards told the detainees that they would send them to UNHCR in Cairo before they put them on specially arranged EgyptAir flights, which took them back to Eritrea instead. Four days later, the foreign ministry said the Government would grant UNHCR access to Eritrean asylum seekers in Egypt. The following day, however, authorities forcibly returned another 20, bringing the total to 700. In total, Egypt forcibly returned at least 1,400 Eritreans but also granted UNHCR access to some 140 Eritreans and the agency granted most of them refugee status.

In June, the Eritrean asylum-seekers were forced to return to Eritrea where they faced several serious human rights violations. The Eritrean authorities detained most of them immediately.

In July, Egypt permitted UNHCR to interview 179 Eritrean asylum seekers in Aswan, but still did not provide UNHCR with complete access to all Eritrean detainees. Also in July, Egyptian police detained 30 Africans they suspected were planning to sneak into Israel.

By August, authorities had arrested nearly 600 trying to cross the Egypt-Israel border and killed at least 19 of them.

Also in August, relatives of a police officer convicted of raping a refugee beat the refugee's lawyer in August, stealing the case file from him. Several days later, the lawyer's family and business partner received threatening phone calls but authorities did not investigate.

In November, Egypt arrested 23 Sudanese for allegedly entering Israel illegally. Authorities interrogated and beat them before taking them to the Sudanese embassy, which arranged for their return. Under Sudanese law, visiting Israel is treason, a crime punishable by long-term imprisonment or death.

Also in November, authorities could not account for some 91 Africans Israel returned to Egypt 20 minutes after Egyptian border guards shot at them.

Law and Policy

Refoulement/Physical Protection

Egyptian security forces shoot at and often kill refugees and asylum seekers attempting to cross the 155-mile border pursuant to a reported "shoot-to-stop" order to border guards. Authorities also forcibly returned dozens of refugees or deported them to third countries during the year (see above). Officials also arrested many Eritreans and Ethiopians in transit and forced them to return and also denied admission to at least four Iraqis at Cairo International Airport.

Egypt is party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention), its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. Egypt maintains reservations to the 1951 Convention's rights to personal status, rationing, public relief and education, labor legislation, and social security. Egypt has not developed any domestic procedures for asylum, but the 1971 Constitution guarantees the right of asylum "for every foreigner persecuted for defending the people's interests, human rights, peace, or justice." Nevertheless, UNHCR makes all refugee determinations in Egypt as it has since 1954, when the Government issued a Memorandum of Understanding (1954 MOU), delegating this responsibility to the agency.

Detention/Access to Courts

The 1971 Constitution reserves its principles of equality before the law without discrimination, preservation of dignity and protection of detainees from harm, and restriction of detention to places defined by law, to citizens. It extends its protection of individual freedom, prohibition of arbitrary arrest and detention, and exclusion of coerced confessions, however, to all persons. Refugees have a right to legal representation.

Egypt often detains refugees for illegal entry, stay, or departure, and sometimes on national security grounds and does not always give UNHCR access to them, including, from January to June, all detained Eritreans and to Ethiopians lacking documentation.

The 1954 MOU provides that the Government will issue residence permits to refugees. However, to obtain them, refugees must go to a number of different offices at inconvenient times and follow confusing procedures. Registration with, and refugee determination by UNHCR is the primary manner in which refugees receive legal residence permits. The Government-issued permits are valid for six months and renewable. For those without formal refugee status, including Palestinians, residence permits depend on criteria such as education, licensed work, marriage to an Egyptian, business partnership with an Egyptian, or a deposit of £E 20,000 (about $3,600) to the Government.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

The 1971 Constitution extends its protection of free movement to all persons, but neither citizens nor foreigners can travel in areas designated military zones. Egypt has no refugee camps and places no restrictions residence for refugees. As a result, most refugees generally reside in urban areas, mostly around Cairo and sometimes Alexandria. Generally speaking, refugees enjoy freedom of movement and residence.

The 1965 Casablanca Protocol grants Palestinian refugees the right to obtain and use travel documents. The 1954 MOU also provides that the Government may issue refugees international travel documents with visas for return.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

It is virtually impossible for refugees to work legally in Egypt. Domestic employment laws applying to all foreigners, govern refugees' right to work. In particular, the 2003 Labor Law and its implementing Ministerial Decree and the 2004 Decree of the Ministry of Manpower and Emigration require all foreigners to have a work permit to engage in gainful employment. The requirements are stringent and include legal status, employer sponsorship, noncompetition with nationals, "the country's economic need," and the hiring and training of Egyptian assistants to any foreign experts or technicians. In addition, a 2006 decree requires employers to submit a certificate that the employee is not carrying the AIDS virus when applying for the permit and upon renewal if he or she has left the country. Foreigners married to Egyptians, their children, and foreigners who have not left the country in ten years are exempt.

Furthermore, to obtain work permits refugees, except for Sudanese who pay a nominal fee, must pay a fee of £E 1,200 (about $213). Permits are valid for one year and are renewable. The 2003 decree caps at ten percent the number of foreigners who can work in any establishment. The 2003 Labor Law requires reciprocity by a foreigner's state toward Egyptians, effectively excluding Palestinian refugees from practicing professions. Employers must prepare detailed biannual registers of all foreigners they employ, including listings of the Egyptian assistants they were training. Finally, the 2003 decree prohibits foreigners from working as tourist guides and, with an exception for Palestinians, in export industries.

Egypt exempts those married to nationals, stateless persons with permanent residence, "political refugees" (in the narrow sense of the Constitution), those born in the country, Palestinians, and those with special or ordinary residence from the non-competition restriction. The 2004 decree, however, also restricts professions to Egyptians, unless the regulations of a profession allow exceptions, and excludes foreigners from work in the export and import sectors, customs clearance, and tourism. Egypt does not allow reciprocal licensing of Iraqi doctors as it does Jordanians. Instead, Iraqis must complete expensive in-hospital training and licensing examinations and often must work at less-qualified positions. A 2006 decree restricts earlier liberalization of work permits for domestic workers, requiring the personal approval of the Minister and limiting issuance to "cases necessitated by humanitarian, social or practical circumstances." The 2003 Labor Law also excludes domestic workers from its protections.

The 2004 Four Freedoms Agreement between Egypt and Sudan states that "Citizens of any of the two countries shall enjoy the right to work and to exercise different professions, crafts and other businesses in the other country, respecting at the same time international and Arab conventions signed by the two countries in this regard." However, Egypt has not effectively implemented it.

Egypt is a party to, but has not implemented, the 1965 Casablanca Protocol, which provides that Palestinian refugees should enjoy the right to work on par with nationals.

Egyptian law also makes no exception for refugees engaging in business. Under the 1997 Investment Law, foreigners can own businesses in 16 specified fields and manage corporations. The 1971 Companies Law (amended in 1998) covers other areas of business and prohibits foreigners from holding majority ownership of partnerships, requires the majority of board members of joint stock companies to be Egyptians, and requires the employment of certain percentages of Egyptians. The 1982 Commercial Agency Law requires foreigners to employ registered Egyptian commercial agents to import goods, engage in consulting, technical, or scientific services or trade representation, and to compete for government contracts. Even naturalized Egyptians must wait ten years before representing corporations or partnerships. Furthermore, under the 1983 Tenders Law, government contract bids by foreigners have to be 15 percent lower than those by Egyptians, to be competitive.

Under Law 56 of 1988, foreigners, including refugees, need the Prime Minister's permission to own residential property limited to 3,000 square meters, which they must purchase with convertible currency and cannot sell for five years. Law 143 of 1981 prohibits foreign ownership of agricultural or rural land. Law 230 of 1996 allows foreigners to apply for permits to own up to two buildings of less than 4,000 square meters. Foreigners opening bank accounts require documentation from their countries of origin, which refugees and asylum seekers frequently do not have.

Egypt made reservations to the 1951 Convention's provisions regarding labor legislation and social security, making refugees ineligible for such benefits.

Public Relief and Education

Refugees do not benefit from public relief and rationing, as Egypt made reservations to their provisions in the 1951 Convention. Yet, when it published the Convention in the Official Gazette, an act essential to making it law, the Government merely referred to "the reservations made to the treaty" without specifying or printing them, arguably depriving them of domestic legal force.

Refugees report that public health officials often discriminate against them and they seek often medical help from UNHCR's implementing partners instead. All Saints' Cathedral provides asylum seekers with medical services for their first two years in Egypt. Caritas, a UNHCR implementing partner, provides primary and emergency services and referrals for specialized treatment. Refuge Egypt provides tuberculosis patients and pregnant women with health services and offers HIV/AIDS testing and counseling.

Foreigners generally are not eligible for rent-controlled housing.

A 1992 Decree of the Minister of Education states that beneficiaries of scholarships from UNHCR in Cairo are entitled to attend public schools under the same conditions as Egyptian nationals. Law 12 of 1996 guarantees free education for all children in state schools, but foreigners must show birth certificates, letters from embassies or UNHCR, residence permits, and certificates from previous schools in the country of origin. In 2000, the Ministry of Education instructed public schools to accept refugees with UNHCR documentation and government-issued residence permits. In practice though, Egypt restricts access to public schools to refugees of certain nationalities, such as Sudanese. However, in governorates other than Cairo, authorities sometimes allow refugee children of all nationalities to enroll in public schools.

Egypt does not include refugees in its development plans.

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