U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants World Refugee Survey 2007 - Egypt



Refoulement/Physical Protection

In 2006, Egypt forcibly returned at least nine asylum seekers (five Ethiopians and four Eritreans) without allowing them to present their claims. It also deported six Sudanese it accused of crimes and, in early 2007, four more. In a departure from normal practice, authorities did not permit the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to interview the Sudanese but assured UNHCR that they had conducted their own assessment of potential risks in returning the Sudanese, and that they did not seek protection.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs retracted earlier threats to expel Sudanese whom authorities had detained after violently suppressing demonstrations at the end of 2005, in which Sudanese unsuccessfully demanded refugee status.

Egypt was 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 the Problems of Refugees in Africa but with reservations on the 1951 Convention's rights to personal status, rationing, education, relief, labor rights, and social security. The 1971 Constitution guaranteed the right of asylum "for every foreigner persecuted for defending the people's interests, human rights, peace or justice," but the president exercised this right only in rare, high-profile cases. A 1984 presidential decree called for creation of a permanent refugee affairs committee within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to adjudicate applications for asylum under the 1951 Convention, but under a 1954 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), the Government generally delegated the responsibility to UNHCR. UNHCR allowed applicants to have legal counsel in its status determination interviews but only gave rejected applicants with counsel one paragraph- or one-sentence reasons for their denial. In September, UNHCR began issuing form letters with one or more of ten general reasons checked off. There was no appeal to an independent body. In 2004, UNHCR suspended status determinations for Sudanese refugees, granting applicants temporary protection instead.

Refugees reported that Egyptians frequently attacked them based on their race. Southern Sudanese youth gangs, including refugees, also fought with each other, causing injuries and one death. Gang members severely beat and robbed one recognized refugee in March. Although he reported it, and the police were aware of one of the attackers' identity, the attackers remained at large and continually threatened the victim.

Estimates of the number of Iraqi refugees at the end of the year ranged from UNHCR's estimate of 20,000 to 80,000 to the Government's figure of 150,000, although fewer than 3,100 registered with UNHCR and initially received three-month, later six-month, visas from the Government. Some reported that officials told them they had to leave the country or pay bribes to renew them although there were no reports of officials enforcing this.

Detention/Access to Courts

In addition to those detained after the December 2005 demonstrations, UNHCR was aware of more than 230 cases of refugees or asylum seekers with UNHCR documentation in detention during the year. During occasional security sweeps, authorities detained some for lack of residence permits, although in a few cases for illegal entry or departure with false documents, and charged about 30 percent with common crimes.

Of the thousands of Sudanese whom authorities detained in the 2005 demonstrations, more than 600 remained in detention at the beginning of the year. In January, authorities released more than 440 after UNHCR interviewed them and, in February, released the last 160. The last group had not registered with UNHCR. After interviewing them in prison, UNHCR said they were not refugees.

UNHCR had access to immigration detainees of concern when the authorities or others informed the agency of them, but authorities could detain and deport refugees without its knowledge. Sometimes the Immigration Department informed the agency about refugee detentions, but refugees often had to use NGO staff, friends, family, bribes, and other unofficial means to inform UNHCR about their arrests.

UNHCR resumed registering asylum seekers and renewing identification cards, but refugees also required residence permits and stamps on their cards. The 1954 MOU provided that the Government would issue residence permits to refugees, but such permits were difficult to obtain. Every two weeks, UNHCR transferred bio-data and file numbers to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Refugees could then approach MFA Sunday through Tuesday between 10 a.m. and noon with their papers for the reference numbers under which it had submitted their applications to the Ministry of Interior's Immigration Department. Two weeks later, they could apply to the immigration authorities for six-month, renewable permits. Typically, they had to return every week for two to three weeks with their papers, photos, $2 (LE 11.50), etc. before MFA actually transferred their files and stop and follow procedures at at least four windows, one of which was unlabelled, to apply. Ten days later, they had to return pick up the residence permit – a sticker to place on their UNHCR cards. For those without formal refugee status, including Palestinians, residence permits depended on other criteria such as education, licensed work, marriage to an Egyptian, business partnership with an Egyptian, or a deposit of $3,500 (LE 20,000) to the Government. Generally, police respected UNHCR documents but schools, traffic authorities, and notaries regularly requested further letters from UNHCR attesting to the person's status. In order to obtain residence documents, unregistered refugees also resorted to enrolling in universities, buying drivers licenses from Egyptian intermediaries, or contacting the opposition party.

Refugees and asylum seekers with residence permits had the right to appear before a court when charged with a crime and, under law, the right to a translator, but this was rarely, if ever, provided. There is no record of refugees or asylum seekers using the courts to vindicate their rights under international law. The Public Prosecutor suspended investigation of the lethal December 2005 police crackdown on Sudanese demonstrators without interviewing any of the victims or survivors of the attacks, due to "inability to identify the perpetrators." The Interior Ministry conducted no internal investigation to identify or discipline security officers who ordered the attack, and the Government maintained that the deaths were entirely due to "the stampede and crushing between the protestors themselves, who were under the influence of drugs and alcohol."

Freedom of Movement and Residence

Egypt had no refugee camps but there were reports of harassment, arbitrary identity checks, and violence by police and civilians, which inhibited refugee movement and choice of residence.

The Government issued travel documents to Palestinians but did not grant them the right to reenter Egypt without a visa, and Egyptian consulates abroad summarily denied them. Travelers on such documents, including refugees born in Egypt, had to return every six months or one year (with proof of education or work abroad) or the Government would deny reentry.

The 1965 Casablanca Protocol also provided that Palestinian refugees should enjoy the right to obtain and use travel documents. The 1954 MOU with UNHCR provided that the Government would issue refugees international travel documents with visas for return but in 2006 only one non-Palestinian applied for and received one, and no other had done so since 2000. The process was lengthy and restrictive and required UNHCR to liaise with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Interior.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

Legal work for asylum seekers was impossible and, for officially recognized refugees, very nearly so, relegating both groups to the informal sector where wages did not cover basic needs. The 2003 Labor Law required all foreigners to have a permit in order to work and did not exempt refugees, nor did the decree of the Ministry of Manpower and Emigration later that year (2003 decree) on the employment of foreigners. The requirements for work permits were severe, including legal status, employer sponsorship, non-competition with nationals, "the country's economic need," and the hiring and training of Egyptian assistants to any foreign experts or technicians. In addition, in December 2006, the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration issued a decree requiring employers to submit "a certificate proving that the foreigner is not carrying the immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)" when applying for the permit and after each time the foreigner leaves the country. Foreigners married to Egyptians, their children, and foreigners who had not left the country in ten years were exempt. Employers had to pay LE 1,000 ($176), although the 2003 decree exempted those employing Palestinians with travel documents and Sudanese in the private sector, and the permits were valid for no more than one year. A 2005 decree extended the exemption to Sudanese in the public sector as well. The 2003 decree also capped the number of foreigners who could work in any establishment at 10 percent. The 2003 Labor Law required reciprocity by a foreigner's state toward Egyptians, effectively excluding Palestinian refugees from practicing professions. Employers had to prepare detailed biannual registers of all foreigners they employed, including listings of the Egyptian assistants they were training. Finally, the 2003 Decree prohibited foreigners from working as tourist guides and, except Palestinians, in export industries.

A 2004 decree on the issuance of work permits exempted those married to nationals, stateless persons with permanent residence, "political refugees" (in the narrow sense of Constitution), those born in the country, Palestinians, and those with special or ordinary residence from the non-competition requirement. The 2004 decree, however, also restricted professions to Egyptians unless the regulations of a profession allowed exceptions. It also excluded foreigners from work in the export and import sectors, customs clearance, and tourism. The 2006 decree restricted earlier liberalization of work permits for domestic workers, requiring the personal approval of the Minister and limiting them to "cases necessitated by humanitarian, social or practical circumstances." The 2003 Labor Law also excluded domestic workers from its protections.

Egypt maintained a reservation on the 1951 Convention's guarantee of equal protection of labor laws.

Egyptian law made no exception for refugees engaging in business. Under the 1997 Investment Law, foreigners could own businesses in 16 specified fields and manage corporations. The 1971 Companies Law (amended 1998) covered other areas of business and prohibited foreigners from holding majority ownership of partnerships, required the majority of board members of joint stock companies to be Egyptians, and required employment of certain percentages of Egyptians. The 1982 Commercial Agency Law required 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 had to wait 10 years before representing corporations or partnerships. Furthermore, under the 1983 Tenders Law, government contract bids by foreigners had to be 15 percent lower than those by Egyptians to be competitive.

Under Law 56 of 1988, foreigners, including refugees, required the permission of the Prime Minister to own residential property and could not own more than 3,000 square meters. They had to purchase it with convertible currency and could not sell it for five years. Law 143 of 1981 prohibited foreign ownership of agricultural or rural land. Law 230 of 1996 allowed foreigners to apply for permits to own up to two buildings of less than 4,000 square meters. Foreigners opening bank accounts required documentation from their countries of origin, which refugees and asylum seekers frequently did not have.

In 2004, Egypt ratified but did not fully implement the Four Freedoms treaty with Sudan to provide reciprocal rights for each other's nationals to freedom of movement, residence, work, and property. The treaty, however, did not obviate the need for work permits. Egypt was also party to, but had not implemented, the 1965 Casablanca Protocol, which provided that Palestinian refugees should enjoy the right to work on par with nationals.

Public Relief and Education

UNHCR was able to give small, often inadequate amounts of aid to only the neediest fifth of its caseload. Church groups also helped but were unable to fill the gap. All Saints' Cathedral provided asylum seekers with medical services for their first two years in Egypt. Caritas subsidized refugees' medical expenses.

Through reservations to the 1951 Convention, Egypt maintained and exercised the right to discriminate against refugees in public relief, health services, education, and rationing. 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. The Government provided no substantive aid to the refugee program. According to a 2005 Ministry of Health decision, foreigners, including refugees, had a right to public primary health services on par with nationals, except that only indigent Egyptians were eligible for free services other than in emergencies. Foreign tenants in general were exempt from Government controls on rent.

The Government did not directly restrict humanitarian organizations aiding refugees and asylum seekers, but the Ministry of Social Affairs, through Law 84 of 2002, regulated and monitored them closely. It also made registration of outside NGOs difficult by failing either to approve them or to provide reasons for rejection within the allotted time and by requiring security clearances that the law did not mandate.


Some private schools expelled Iraqi refugee children when their three-month visas expired. Law 12 of 1996 guaranteed free education for all children in state schools, but the obstacles for foreigners (birth certificates, letters from embassies or UNHCR, residence permits, and certificates from previous schools in the country of origin) made it difficult for refugees to exercise this right. Local authorities did not recognize UNHCR refugee and asylum seeker cards in lieu of unavailable passports but, in 2000, the Ministry of Education instructed public schools to accept refugees with UNHCR documentation and Government-issued residence permits. NGOs, many church-affiliated, ran community schools that served refugees, but most did not follow the Egyptian curriculum, the Government did not recognize them, and they did not issue formal diplomas.

Egypt allowed Palestinians to attend colleges of medicine, pharmacy, economics, political science, and journalism, but they had to pay prohibitive foreigners' fees in pounds sterling that the Government doubled for advanced degrees.


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