Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Fast friends become unstuck

Doaa El-Bey reports on the plight of Syrian refugees highlighted in an Amnesty International report issued last week

Al-Ahram Weekly

“If Israel offers refuge I’d go live there,” says Umm Firas, a Syrian housewife who left her once comfortable life in Syria to face hardship in Egypt.

The remark, which she concedes was an exaggeration, is a result of frustration at the way her once friendly relations with Egyptians have soured.

Bassem, a labourer who lives in 6 October, shares many of the same grievances as Umm Firas. “I can’t find work. It seems to be getting harder and harder every day,” he says.

6 October, 30km from downtown Cairo, has become home to many Syrian refugees in the wake of the Syrian revolution.

When he arrived in Cairo in January, says Bassem, Egyptians sympathised with him and other Syrian refugees and did their best to help. Now, like other Syrian refugees, he suffers “from the unfriendly treatment meted out by Egyptians”.

He says he understands some of the resentments — that Syrians, whose numbers in Egypt are increasing, are perceived as a burden to the already ailing Egyptian economy, taking jobs from Egyptians.

Relations between Syrian refugees and their Egyptian hosts began to deteriorate following Islamist president Mohamed Morsi’s June announcement that ties would be cut with Damascus. Morsi’s decree, declared during a conference held at a Cairo stadium attended by Islamist groups, was widely seen as an attempt to woo Syrian rebels.

Things got worse after blanket media coverage of Syrians purportedly taking part in the Rabaa sit-in in support of the now ousted Morsi. Syrians were subject to verbal and sometimes physical attack. Many were reported to have been arrested, detained or deported after the forcible dispersal of the sit-in in August.

“Why do Egyptians blame all Syrians for something that only a tiny minority of refugees did?” asks Umm Firas.

Her neighbours, she says, now ignore her.

“Last year during Eid [Al-Adha] Egyptian neighbours gave me meat that lasted my family weeks. This year there was nothing,” she says.

“I don’t understand,” complains Bassem, “how people can think all Syrians are supporters of Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Last week Amnesty International issued a report accusing Egypt of unlawfully detaining and deporting hundreds of Syrian refugees, many of them women and children. The Foreign Ministry rejected and condemned the report as misleading.

“It is inaccurate,” ministry spokesman Badr Abdel-Ati said in a press statement issued last Thursday. “There is no official policy on the forced deportation of our Syrian brothers. Most of them live in peace and there are no refugee camps in the country.”

He added, however, that some Syrians had been deported for participating in armed protests and violent clashes.

Amnesty’s report accuses Egypt of failing to meet its international obligations to protect the most vulnerable refugees and called on the Egyptian authorities to end their policy of unlawfully detaining and forcibly returning hundreds of refugees who have fled the armed conflict in Syria.

One result of Egyptian policies, claimed the report, is that more and more refugees are risking their lives to illegally travel to Europe in unseaworthy vessels.

According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, 946 people have been arrested by the Egyptian authorities while attempting to cross the Mediterranean and 724 — women, children and men — remain in detention.

Just like young Egyptians, says Abdel-Ati, some young Syrians facing a difficult economic situation try to reach Europe illegally and when arrested they are dealt with according to the law.

“Syrians are not detained or deported as long as they respect the law,” he said.

Some Syrians in Egypt take issue with the picture portrayed in Amnesty’s report.

Hoda, a housewife who came to Egypt last year, insists that the attitude of Egyptians has not changed.

“I am treated like an Egyptian,” she told Al-Ahram Weekly. “My children go to Egyptian schools and we receive treatment in local hospitals. My Egyptian neighbour even volunteered to pick my children up from school with his own. The decision taken by the government not to admit Syrian children in Egyptian schools was very quickly cancelled.”

Alaa, who works in a flower shop, agrees.

“I can’t say I’ve noticed any difference in the way I’m treated but that may be because I live in an affluent area and deal with Egyptians who understand not all Syrians are supporters of Morsi or the Brotherhood,” she says.

Her one complaint is that changes in entry regulations — since August Syrians have been required to obtain visas and security clearance before arriving in Egypt — makes life more difficult for some.

“Some Syrian refugees in Egypt need to leave the country for reasons related to their families or work. The new regulations mean some of them are opting to leave for countries where entry and exit is easier.”

The Foreign Ministry has said repeatedly that changes to entry requirements for Syrians are a temporary measure and will be reviewed once the domestic situation becomes more stable.

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